Baby See, Baby Do

Kids & Advertising

I remember the day my husband, Ken, came home from the drugstore with a bag full of L'oreal shampoo for children. Why? Alexandra, then five, had fallen in love with the packaging. Turns out this shampoo remained Alex's favorite for a long, long time, and set the tone for future love affair with the Body Shop.

Ken and I loved the smells that emanated from the L'oreal bottles, so it was no leap to stick with the brand. But if not for Alex's initial attraction and Ken's willingness to explore (he's a marketer and loves this stuff), we might still be using the baby shampoo I always brought home.

From footwear to hair care, big business is making its pitch to little consumers and scoring billions of dollars. Marketers know that kids influence billions of dollars in purchases each year, and their focus has moved from the traditional toys, candy and cereal to computers, clothing and cars.

Disney characters are on everything from lunch pails to sleepwear. And every time I bent over to scrub the tub, Alexandra was there reminding me that Mr. Clean will clean my whole house and everything that's in it.

Worried that commercials are having an undue influence on your children? Maybe it's time to start talking to them about marketing, and how often the “promise” and the “reality” differ. Kids need help in seeing that what's presented on television isn't always what they get.

When your child says he wants the latest action figure, ask him if he thinks said figure will move by of its own accord. When you take him to the store to buy the product, take it out of the packaging (another buy-me ploy) and ask him if it lives up to his expectations.

Young children need guidance to distinguish a sales pitch from television's non-commercial content. You actually have to teach your kids that advertising exists to sell products, that special effects can exaggerate a toy's operation, and that the ads don't always include all the information about a product.

The next time you watch TV with your son or daughter, take time to point out the difference between the programs and the advertisements. Talk with your child about the different types of commercials on TV and radio. Watch or listen to several ads together and have your child label the ads. Typical labels might include:

  • Wannabe Ads: Beautiful people having scads of fun doing things we would all love to be able to do: rafting, skiing, skateboarding, dancing. Buy the product and you'll be part of a group of fun-loving, popular achievers.
  • Famous People Ads: Athletes, movie stars, musicians, famous business people, even politicians appear in ads. The message is if someone famous uses the product, shouldn't you?
  • Cozy Ads: These ads depict warm, comfy pictures, usually in an intimate setting. A grandpa and grandson chatting on the telephone or best friends sharing secrets over a tub of ice cream. These ads want you to relate their products to love and contentment.
  • Facts Ads: Four out of five doctors, six out of seven dentists and nine out of ten mechanics all say this is the best product available. Could all those experts be wrong?
  • The Great Offer Ads: These offer you a not-to-be-believed, too-good-to-pass-up opportunity to get more for less — eight CDs for a dollar, 12 tapes for a penny, buy two get one free, buy one and the next is half-price.

Once you and your child have labeled the ads, make a game of finding four or five examples of each type of ad. Ask your child:

  • Is the product better because a famous person says it is?
  • Will you be happier, safer, warmer, cozier, if you buy that product?
  • Can you figure out what the product is really like from the ad?
  • Is the deal being offered a good deal? Do you know all the facts? Are there any catches?
  • Are your buying decisions being influenced without you being aware of it?

Now for the real-world application: The next time you're at the supermarket, ask your child to choose a food product he or she saw advertised. You choose a similar product. When you get home, do a blindfolded taste test so your child can experience firsthand whether the advertised product lives up to its claim.

Given the constant barrage of messages to buy, buy, buy, it's not surprising that children are consummate consumers. Maybe it's time to start making your kids smarter about how they spend their, and your, money.

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