By AMY HEGGEN
---- — PLATTSBURGH ― Some parents are concerned about the messages their children receive from marketers.
Advertising targeted toward children has been blamed for issues such as rising obesity rates, low self-esteem and materialism over the years.
Cheryl Kabeli of Plattsburgh is a nurse practitioner and mother of 6-year-old Sophie Kabeli. Kabeli sees the effect of advertising on her daughter and tries to monitor the amount she is exposed to.
“Everything she sees, she wants it,” Kabeli said. “Dolls, Stompeez Slippers. She doesn’t wear slippers; I don’t know why she wants them.”
Kabeli notices that fast-food commercials also grab her daughter’s attention.
“If they advertise a toy, she wants to go there to get the toy,” Kabeli said.
Commercial-free shows are preferred during the hour of television that Sophie is allowed each day. Often, the family tapes shows with a digital video recorder in order to fast-forward through the commercials, Kabeli said.
“She’s rationalizing to me why she should have this item, and she’s 6 years old,” she said.
Kabeli said parents feel guilty about working a lot and think they can make up for it by buying materialistic things for their child.
“I don’t want her to be a materialistic child. I want her to appreciate the things she does get,” she said. “I don’t want her to feel she’s entitled to these things.”
IMPACTS ON CHILDREN
Lise Heroux, a marketing and entrepreneurship professor who teaches an advertising class at SUNY Plattsburgh, researched the effect of advertising on children as a graduate student at McGill University in Montreal about 25 years ago.
“Some of the research I did had to do with the impact of advertising on children’s values,” Heroux said. “It was clearly demonstrated in the research that it did have an impact on the children and their values.”
“Mostly we’re talking about toys,” said Heroux about the products that marketers gear toward children.
Video games as well as sugary snacks and cereals are also popular products marketed toward children, Heroux said.
“Those are mostly the categories of products that kids demand the most,” Heroux said.
Children are susceptible to advertisements because they don’t develop skepticism until 8 or 9 years old, she said.
“They know it’s an ad, but they don’t understand it’s trying to influence them to buy something,” Heroux said. “They don’t see the negative side of products; they don’t have that kind of questioning in their mind.”
Advertising also affects teenagers because they don’t question the images that they see, Heroux said.
According to a study done in 2004 by the Federal Trade Commission, children age 2 to 11 saw about 25,600 advertisements per year. The study tried to shed light on the link between television advertising and the rising rate of childhood obesity.
Part of Heroux’s research measured how advertising influenced children’s snack-food choices. The kids were shown an entertaining public-service announcement for fruits and vegetables.
“It increased the number of times they chose fruits and vegetables as a snack,” she said.
Although candy bars were still the preferred snack, in a period of two weeks the children increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables.
“Imagine the impact that would have over their lifetime. It was amazing to see such a large impact of advertising in such a short time,” Heroux said.
A group called Action for Children’s Television spent decades trying to rid advertisements targeted toward children but was closed in 1992. Heroux said they could not compete with the lobbyists.
“Academics also did some research, but it became clear that it wasn’t going to change because the lobbyist resistance was too strong,” Heroux said. “That stream of research has declined.”
A parent herself, Heroux said the ethical way to advertise children’s products is to target the parents and let them decide what is good for their children.
Sometimes it can be hard to screen what children see, especially when a hero in a film is using a certain product.
“Product placement is one of the strategies that companies are now using,” Heroux said. “These can be powerful because they’re associated with movie heroes.”
While parents make the ultimate decision, children have an impact on buying behavior, particularly when choosing a restaurant or a brand of cereal in the supermarket, Heroux said.
She recommends that parents stick to a budget and screen the choices as well as the amount of television their children are exposed to.
“They don’t have to have everything they ask for,” Heroux said. “You can’t get away from (advertising) completely but, as a parent, you can certainly control things. And the kids won’t hate you for it.”
Colleen Lemza, an associate professor of public relations at SUNY Plattsburgh, organizes Shine On!, an annual event for elementary-school girls that gives them tools to become resilient against negative messages from peers and media. She is the mother of 10-year-old twin daughters, Maddy and Emmy, and an 11-year-old son, Garrett, and she is actively trying to discourage materialism in her household.
“There’s a whole group of people called tweens that marketers created,” Lemza said.
A tween is defined as a child between the ages of 8 and 14.
Marketers are building an audience to increase their sales. A lot of the products are personal-care items or toys that are made to be pink and pretty that are targeted toward girls, Lemza said.
“Girls are growing up much faster. Eight is the new 12. While they might be wearing the clothes and the make-up, their minds aren’t there yet,” Lemza said. “They’ve skipped the whole stage where they can just be girls.”
Lego is an example of a toy company that has a product marketed specifically to girls.
“They’ve taken the building and science out of Lego for girls and made them pink and pastel,” Lemza said.
She said this allows Lego to sell more products.
“If parents don’t see it as a problem and they’re not the gatekeeper, marketers are going to take advantage,” she said.
Lemza said educating parents is one way to combat the issue, and that parents need to come out of their comfort zone and have conversations with their children.
“It’s the message that we’re sending that’s important. As parents, we need to know what they’re listening to, watching, reading. And it is a lot of work,” Lemza said.
She remembers when she was in sixth grade and she really wanted a pair of Nikes because everyone else had them.
“I value now that my mom had the courage to say, 'No,'” Lemza said.
Lemza struggles with these issues daily and talks to her children about whether one product is actually better than another. She wants her children to understand marketing tactics, she said.
“Nobody wants their kid to be the one who’s left out. The point is to make them feel confident enough in themselves so they’re not looking for it in materialistic things,” Lemza said.
“I don’t want it to define who they are. We (parents) have an ethical obligation.”