Cover Story

In an era when textbooks ask young students to determine the diameter of an Oreo cookie or how many weeks of allowance is needed to buy a pair of Nike shoes, a group of psychologists are becoming increasingly alarmed at the impact commercialization may be having on the nation's children.

The advertising industry spends $12 billion a year marketing directly to children, leaving children viewing advertisements nearly everywhere--from magazines and television to the Internet and even their own classrooms. In fact, just on television alone, a child will view about 40,000 commercials a year, said Dale Kunkel, PhD, professor of communications at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"It's time to move forward with new policies and new research," urged Brian Wilcox, PhD, chair of APA's Task Force on Advertising and Children, at a session on commercialism and children during APA's 2002 Annual Convention. "The stakes are far too high for psychology to continue to ignore this issue."

APA's Task Force on Advertising and Children, formed in 2000, has been researching the impact of commercialization on children and examining the social and cognitive consequences. Committee members expect to release their recommendations in February, but their report must first be approved by APA's Council of Representatives.

Edward Palmer, PhD, a professor of psychology at Davidson College, said many of the products advertised by the mass media can be psychologically or physically harmful to children and are often items children do not need and cannot afford. Furthermore, advertising might also trigger materialistic attitudes by teaching children to measure personal worth by the products they own.

The effect of advertising in the school environment is an area that particularly needs to be studied further by psychologists, Palmer said. "The uniqueness of the school environment is that there is a captive audience that is required to be there," Palmer said. "[Advertisers] are able to focus on all children at one time and can do that in no other context."

Children also face indirect advertising in the schools, such as corporate-sponsored education materials, contests or incentives, teacher training, inclusion of brand-name products within textbooks, and advertisers who provide cars for driver education classes. More schools are also teaming up with companies in exclusionary contracts, such as Coke or Pepsi soda deals in which the school agrees to only offer that one product. The number of these deals has tripled in the last 10 years, Palmer said.

And while these deals continue to increase, young children lack the cognitive defense to guard against these commercial messages, Kunkel said. By age 3 or 4, most children are able to differentiate an ad from a program. But a child is unable until age 7 or 8 to understand the persuasive intent of the message. For example, a 1974 study by Thomas Robertson, PhD, and John Rossiter, PhD, showed that 65 percent of first-graders trusted all commercials, while only 7 percent of fifth-graders trusted all commercials.

The extent to which commercialization has affected children is difficult to determine due to gaps in the research knowledge: There have been only two empirical studies on the issue, the speakers said. "Psychologists have a major role to play in this," Palmer added.