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What’s wrong with advertising to children?

Parents are increasingly concerned about the influence of advertising on their children's lives - and with good reason.

Simon Ragoonanan
Simon Ragoonanan - September 13, 2017

Hopster is a 100% ad-free kids app. Advertising to children is an approach we have deliberately chosen not to take, both within the app and promoting our product. We wanted to explain a little more about why being ad-free matters so much to us.

So what’s wrong with advertising to kids?

The money spent advertising to children is staggering. In the UK alone, annual spend is over £12 billion. In the US it’s estimated that the average child views a staggering 40,000 commercials a year.

From a brand’s perspective, children respond well to advertising. Studies have shown that children under 8-years-old are unable to distinguish between adverts and normal content. Kids perceive them as helpful and informative, unaware of their persuasive intent.

The term ‘pester power’ (aka ‘the nag factor’) is a testament to the power of advertising to children. A concept known since brands started selling to kids, children want what’s advertised so much they will lobby their parents until mum & dad are so worn down they buy it for their child. The key to this working is reaching kids directly, with ads targeted and delivered to them, and then getting them to persuade their parents to part with their cash.

But as well as the questionable practice of using children to act as proxy salesmen to their parents, what of issues around the content itself? Children will be consuming it in the same way as any other media, yet it has the explicit aim of selling – not child development. The messages they take from advertising, which will reflect the biases of the marketing campaign (eg. making junk food look enticing, or targeting certain types of toy to either boys or girls), could stay with these kids for the rest of their lives.

For these reasons, advertising to children should at the very least be considered immoral – and there is even a case for it to be outlawed.

Should advertising to children be banned?

In Norway and Quebec, it is in fact against the law. There was a similar ban in Sweden, but this was repealed in 1991.

Even in the US, in the 1970s the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) held hearings on this very topic, and subsequently proposed to ban “advertising for any product, which is directed to, or seen by, audiences with a significant proportion of children too young to understand the selling purpose of advertising”.

Unfortunately, nothing ever became law as the commission deemed any rules too difficult to enforce. The 60,000 pages of submissions and intense lobbying from interested parties had nothing to do with it of course.

How to limit the impact of advertising on your children

It’s clearly tempting for those companies who have platforms for kids to want a bite of the children’s advertising market. To repeat the figures, £12 billion is spent by brands on advertising to children – in the UK alone. So without robust regulations in place, how are parents to tackle this issue?

Firstly, teaching children media literacy should probably begin far earlier than we would imagine. Kids are bombarded with advertising and marketing practically from birth. The earlier we can teach them to decode the messaging directed at them the better.

Parents can also lead the fight back against advertising to kids by limiting their children’s exposure to it. One of the reasons streaming services and subscription apps like Hopster are popular with parents is the simple fact that there is no advertising on them.

At Hopster, we are firmly committed to providing young children with an ad-free digital environment to explore by themselves. Parents can feel assured their kids will never see any adverts within our app.