Cover Story

The advertising industry spends $12 billion per year on ads targeted to children, bombarding young audiences with persuasive messages through media such as television and the Internet. The average child is exposed to more than 40,000 TV commercials a year, according to studies. And ads are reaching children through new media technologies and even in schools--with corporate-sponsored educational materials and product placements in students' textbooks.

But the buck stops here, if APA and its Task Force on Advertising and Children have it their way.

In February, APA's Council of Representatives adopted the task force's policy and research recommendations to help counter the potential harmful effects of advertising on children, particularly children ages 8 and younger who lack the cognitive ability to recognize advertising's persuasive intent.

With this latest move, APA joins the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Kaiser Family Foundation and several other organizations that have recently suggested similar policies.

And, APA has been making strides in getting some of the task force's recommendations put into action. Among its recommendations, the task force calls for advocacy efforts for legislation to restrict advertising targeted to children 8 years old and younger and for conducting more research showing the influence advertising has on young children (see sidebar for the full list of recommendations).

So far, APA's Public Policy office has met with members of Congress, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission to address advertising's effects on children. APA also plans to co-sponsor a briefing in Washington, D.C., this month with Children Now and the American Academy of Pediatrics about child-oriented ads delivered through digital media and multicasting technologies.

The task force report, with its empirically based recommendations, is helping to guide such advocacy efforts and to do the same for research--both major goals, says APA Board of Directors member Barry Anton, PhD, who is also a member of APA's Council of Representatives.

"We can use it to advocate to state legislators, organizations and foundations, and we can use the task force report as a way to request funding for research," says Anton, who chaired a subsequent task force on children and adolescents.

Ultimately, such efforts aim to spotlight the question of fairness in child-directed advertising, says Dale Kunkel, PhD, senior author of the task force's report and professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "Is it fair to allow advertising to an audience that is too young to recognize commercial messages are biased and have a persuasive intent?"

Advertising effects

Certainly the messages' power of persuasion is compelling, the task force found. Studies cited in the report have shown that after just one exposure to a commercial, children can recall the ad's content and have a desire for the product.

Some messages may influence children's behavior too, says Brian Wilcox, PhD, chair of the task force, which formed in 2000 to conduct an extensive literature review of advertising's effects on children. For example, research has shown that child-directed ads for healthy foods can lose their effectiveness when children view ads for snack foods in the same sitting.

Indeed, some researchers speculate that advertising geared to children--which largely consists of ads for sugary cereals, candy and fast-food restaurants--may be contributing to the increase in childhood obesity by promoting unhealthy foods. Plus, studies suggest that eating habits formed during childhood can persist throughout life, according to the report.

Also of concern is the "privatization" in children's media consumption, with a growing number of young children using the Internet and watching televisions in their bedrooms, where no one is present to explain what they are viewing or reading, according to the report.

That lack of adult interpretation is a concern because young children tend to accept ads as fair, accurate, balanced and truthful, Kunkel says. "They don't see the exaggeration or the bias that underlies the claims," he says. "To young children, advertising is just as credible as Dan Rather reading the evening news is to an adult."

For children to critically process ads, they must be able to discriminate between commercial and noncommercial content and identify advertising's persuasive intent, the report notes.

Particularly alarming to the task force is that commercials also often use psychological research to make their messages more powerful. For example, they draw from developmental psychology principles to build campaigns that persuade children they need a product and to nag their parents to buy it. In addition, advertisers often use characters and celebrities--such as from shows like "SpongeBob SquarePants" or "Blues Clues"--or premium gimmicks to reel in children.

Increasing efforts

Psychologists can help parents and their children get wise to such advertiser strategies--particularly in the schools, says task force member Edward Palmer, PhD, who has been studying advertising's effects on children for the past 30 years. In fact, even as schools themselves have become a venue for advertisers, little research has explored whether school-based ads distract students from learning or intensify pressure on them to buy, he adds.

"Psychologists are also needed to help educate educators about this problem," says Palmer, a professor of psychology at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C. For example, he says, psychologists can create media literacy interventions to help children understand the persuasive intent of ads.

"I hope psychologists mount a public-information campaign so that the various stakeholders understand these issues--especially parents, teachers and legislators," adds task force member Joanne Cantor, PhD, professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Advertising has changed tremendously in the past few decades as it has increasingly turned to younger audiences, Wilcox notes, such as using the Internet to reach children in subtle ways like through the games they play.

"The user is sometimes not even aware of the marketing effort and advertising undertaking," Wilcox says. "Advertisers and marketers are very sophisticated in using advertising to reach children." However, virtually no research exists on the use of Internet interactivity to reach children, he says.

He notes that a growing number of parents support psychology's involvement in filling that gap--in exploring the effects of such ads and curbing them.

"When I talk to parents they are quite concerned about advertising's effects on their children, says Wilcox, professor of psychology and director of the Center on Children, Families and the Law at the University of Nebraska. "They have to live with children making unreasonable purchasing requests from the advertisements they see--toys they want, food that is not good for them. This can be difficult for parents to manage."

Child psychologist Allen D. Kanner, PhD, who consulted with the task force and played a part in its formation, agrees. Kanner says he has noticed more of his young clients interested in money and asking parents for products they see advertised.

"The materialistic shift happening in our society is having an enormous impact and major influence on children's lives that is highly psychological in nature," Kanner says. "It needs to be a focus of our profession right now."