Advertising is hardly a recent human endeavor; archaeologists have uncovered signs advertising property for rent dating back to ancient Rome and Pompeii. Town criers were another early form of advertising. As an industry, advertising did not take off until the arrival of the various mass media: printing, radio, and television. Nevertheless, concerns over advertising targeting children preceded both radio and television. The British Parliament passed legislation in 1874 intended to protect children from the efforts of merchants to induce them to buy products and assume debt.
Commercial appeals to children, however, did not become commonplace until the advent and widespread adoption of television and grew exponentially with the advent of cable television, which allowed programmers to develop entire channels of child-oriented programming and advertising. Opportunities to advertise to children further expanded with the explosive growth of the Internet, and thousands of child-oriented Web sites with advertising content have appeared in the past few years.
Compounding the growth in channels for advertising targeting children has been another development: the privatization of children's media use. A recent study found that a majority of all U.S. children have televisions in their bedrooms. Many children also have unsupervised access to computers, meaning that much of the media (and advertising) content that children view is in contexts absent parental monitoring and supervision.
These two trends—the growth in advertising channels reaching children and the privatization of children's media use—have resulted in a dramatic increase in advertising directly intended for the eyes and ears of children. It is estimated that advertisers spend more than $12 billion per year to reach the youth market and that children view more than 40,000 commercials each year. These figures represent dramatic increases over those from the 1970s.
The Task Force on Advertising and Children, responding to its charge, began by reviewing research on the impact of advertising on children, 2 with particular attention given both to the implications of children's cognitive development for understanding the potential effects of exposure to advertising and to specific harms that might result from exposure to advertising. There is a substantial body of scientific evidence addressing all of these basic issues. In contrast, concerns about advertising that have emerged as a result of new and changing technological capabilities, such as interactive forms of advertising and commercial Web sites targeting children, have yet to attract almost any empirical study. Consequently, our research review and conclusions are largely confined to more traditional advertising approaches, although we identify the issues in need of further research investigation within our final recommendations.
Cognitive Development and Advertising
Two important information processing tasks are required for any person to achieve a mature understanding of advertising messages. First, the individual must be able to distinguish between commercial and noncommercial content. In other words, an individual must be able to differentiate the ads from the programs. Studies of children indicate that those below the ages of 4–5 years do not consistently distinguish program from commercial content, even when program/commercial separation devices ("GoBots will be back after these messages") are used. As children reach the age of 4–5 years, they typically perceive a categorical distinction between commercials and programming, but primarily on the basis of affective ("commercials are funnier") or perceptual ("commercials are shorter") cues only.
The second essential cognitive task involved in a mature comprehension of advertising is the ability to recognize the persuasive intent of advertising and to apply that knowledge in the child’s understanding of the advertising message. In other words, mature persuasive intent comprehension involves not only the recognition that the advertiser has a perspective different from the viewer and that advertisers intend to persuade their audience to want to buy their products, but also that such persuasive communication is biased, and that biased messages must be interpreted differently than unbiased messages.
Basic developmental research on egocentrism and perspective taking, along with a great deal of evidence specifically examining developmental differences in the comprehension of persuasive intent within advertisements, establishes clearly that most children younger than 7–8 years of age do not recognize the persuasive intent of commercial appeals. However, there is far less research examining whether and at what ages children begin to appreciate that advertising messages are inherently biased or on when children begin to develop strategies to counteract the bias within these messages. It is clear that both of these abilities are dependent upon the child’s development of the ability to understand the persuasive intent of advertising, meaning that mature comprehension of advertising occurs no earlier than age 7–8 years on average. Further investigation is needed to establish the upper age boundary of children who are uniquely vulnerable to televised commercial persuasion as a function of normative developmental limitations on their information-processing capabilities. Nonetheless, a key conclusion of the task force, which is supported by a strong base of empirical evidence, is that young children below 7–8 years of age clearly lack an understanding of the persuasive intent of television advertising.
The Effects of Advertising on Children
The task force reviewed research addressing two important types of questions regarding the effects of advertising on children. First, does advertising affect children’s commercial recall and product preferences? If not, the $12 billion spent annually by advertisers in commercial appeals to children would represent a surprisingly poor investment. Second, does exposure to advertising result in consumption of products that are inimical to the health and well-being of children? For example, does advertising play a role in the overconsumption of candy and sugared cereals or in underage drinking of alcoholic beverages?
Research on children's commercial recall and product preferences confirms that advertising typically achieves its intended effects. A variety of studies using differing methodologies find that children recall content from the ads to which they've been exposed. Product preference has been shown to occur with as little as a single commercial exposure and to strengthen with repeated exposures. Most importantly, studies have shown that product preferences affect children's product purchase requests and that these requests do influence parents' purchasing decisions.
The more fundamental concern regarding the effects of advertising on children relates to questions of potential harm resulting from exposure. A variety of research findings are relevant to this issue. Several studies, for example, have found that parent–child conflicts occur commonly when parents deny their children's product purchase requests that were precipitated by advertising. Considerable research has examined advertising's cumulative effect on children's eating habits. Studies have documented that a high percentage of advertisements targeting children feature candy, fast foods, and snacks and that exposure to such advertising increases consumption of these products. While consumption of nonnutritious foods per se may not be harmful, overconsumption of these products, particularly to the exclusion of healthier food, is linked to obesity and poorer health. Several studies have found strong associations between increases in advertising for nonnutritious foods and rates of childhood obesity.
A variety of studies have found a substantial relationship between children's viewing of tobacco and alcohol ads and positive attitudes toward consumption of such products. Children find many such commercials attractive (e.g., Joe Camel, the Budweiser frogs) and consequently have high brand awareness of such products and positive attitudes toward them. These products and their spokes-characters have been found to be featured in programming and publications frequently viewed by minors, and reviews of this research (including the Surgeon General's analysis) conclude that advertising of them contributes to youth smoking and drinking.
Critics have also expressed concern regarding the prevalence of advertising of violent media, such as movies and video games, targeting children. Three reports by the Federal Trade Commission found considerable support for such charges, and while studies have not directly assessed the impact of such advertising, it is highly likely that such ads do affect children's media preferences.
Schools and Commercialism
The TFAC gave special consideration to commercialism in the schools for two reasons. First, children spend a considerable amount of their childhood in school settings, and because school attendance is compulsory, children have little freedom to avoid any commercial content they are exposed to in schools. Second, it is conceivable that commercial content delivered in schools may be assumed to have the tacit endorsement of respected teachers and school officials, thereby enhancing the effectiveness of the advertising.
Several recent analyses have summarized the extent and growth of advertising and other marketing activities in schools, including an important study by the U.S. General Accounting Office. Advertising and marketing takes several forms: direct advertising in school classrooms (via advertiser-sponsored video or audio programming), indirect advertising (via corporate-sponsored educational materials), product sales contracts (with soda and snack food companies), and school-based corporate-sponsored marketing research. Several of these advertising and marketing activities have been pursued aggressively by schools as a source of additional revenue, but these activities have generally been greeted critically by those outside school systems.
What surprised the task force was the dearth of research on commercialism in the schools. We found only two empirical studies that addressed in-school commercialism issues, one a content analysis of ads and the other a study of the effect of school-based ads on product-related attitudes and preferences and materialistic attitudes. Given the widespread nature of these advertising practices, along with their potential impact on consumer attitudes and behaviors and students' educational attitudes and achievement, it is perplexing that so little research has been conducted to date.
Public Policy Implications
Research indicates clearly that advertising exerts substantial influence on children's attitudes and behaviors, and these effects go well beyond moving product desire from one brand to another. More specifically, the evidence points directly to one fundamental concern: that advertising targeting children below the ages of 7–8 years is inherently unfair because it capitalizes on younger children's inability to attribute persuasive intent to advertising. As a result of this limitation, children below this age comprehend the information contained in television commercials uncritically, accepting most advertising claims and appeals as truthful, accurate, and unbiased. Until fairly recently, advertisers tended to view children in this age range as off limits as advertising targets, but industry practices have changed as new developments in media technology have facilitated greater degrees of age-niche programming and related advertising.
Concern over the fairness of targeting such young children is not a new development. Research on the issue dates back to the late 1960s. In the early 1970s, the Federal Communications Commission considered a proposal to ban advertising to audiences of young children but settled on a more modest approach: limiting the amount of advertising time within children's programming and restricting certain advertising practices likely to make it more difficult for children to make attributions of persuasive intent. Later in the 1970s, the Federal Trade Commission also considered banning all television advertising to young children, citing exactly the type of developmental research the task force reviewed. Congress, responding to television and advertising industry pressure, forced the FTC to abandon this proposal by threatening the agency's funding. While the FTC did drop its effort to restrict advertising to children, it stated in its final order that the issue of advertising to young children is one that should remain a public concern, given the compelling body of scientific evidence documenting young children’s unique vulnerability to commercial persuasion. Since that time, the advertising industry has recognized the sensitivity of these issues in its own self-regulatory advertising guidelines, but this code is exceedingly vague, compliance is completely voluntary, and enforcement is not actively pursued.
In our view, the psychological evidence we have reviewed holds critical implications for public policy. The strength of the research documenting young children’s limited ability to recognize and defend against television advertising has improved substantially since the 1970s, when both the FCC and the FTC seriously considered, although ultimately eschewed, broad-based restrictions on advertising targeting audiences of young children. We believe that the accumulation of evidence on this topic is now compelling enough to warrant regulatory action by the government to protect the interests of children, and therefore offer a recommendation that restrictions be placed on advertising to children too young to recognize advertising’s persuasive intent. The implementation of such a policy would place the United States in good company, alongside such countries as Australia, Canada, Sweden, and Great Britain, which have already adopted regulations prohibiting advertising on programs targeting audiences of young children.
Implications for the Field of Psychology
There are three areas in which the task force considered implications of the evidence reviewed for the field of psychology (PDF, 617KB), including the role of psychologists as researchers, educators, and the applied professional practice of marketing research.
While research psychologists have already established the cognitive limitations of younger children’s comprehension of advertising messages, there are many important areas where further investigation is needed. Nearly all research on advertising to children involves studies of television, leaving us with little empirical knowledge about other commercial forms and contexts. For example, we know virtually nothing about how children recognize and defend against commercial messages delivered in new media environments, such as the Internet. We know virtually nothing about new interactive advertising strategies being employed on the World Wide Web. We have no clear indication whether advertising delivered in school environments is more influential, less influential, or indistinguishable from advertising delivered in other contexts or whether allowing advertising in the schools exerts adverse effects on young people’s esteem for educational institutions. There is also a surprising paucity of research on the role of gender, race, ethnicity, and culture on the perception and comprehension of advertising as well as the ways in which they might influence responses to advertising. Given that advertisers develop ad campaigns to reach child audiences segmented by gender, race, and ethnicity, there is a clear need for research on these topics. Obviously, there is much of importance yet to be learned from psychological research in these topic areas, and thus it is an appropriate time for the field of psychology to reinvigorate the examination of how children understand and are influenced by contemporary advertising strategies and messages.
Psychologists can also play important roles in educating their students, clients, and people in the communities they serve regarding the types of concerns raised in this report. Education, in the form of media literacy, may assist parents and older children to consider the influence of advertising in their lives more seriously and to take actions protecting them from unwanted commercial influence. It should be noted, however, that the task force did not place great emphasis on media literacy strategies for addressing the concerns about advertising to young children for two reasons. First, there is limited research documenting the efficacy of media literacy training in protecting young children against advertising effects, and this vacuum corresponds with strong theoretical grounds for expecting that such training cannot overcome the cognitive limitations of younger children in this realm. More research is needed before one should invest much faith in media literacy as a principal means of combating commercial persuasion targeting young children, although older children might be expected to benefit more productively from such efforts. Second, it was the sense of the task force that an overreliance on media literacy as a key strategy for defending against advertising effects is misdirected and places too great a responsibility on children. All too often we see calls for interventions designed to "world proof” the child when we would be better off relying on strategies that offer protections for children, in this case from advertising deemed to be unfair and potentially harmful to children. An over-reliance on media literacy could, in this instance, be tantamount to blaming
Finally, the growth in marketing efforts targeting children has seemingly fueled an increase in the industry’s use of applied psychologists working as marketing researchers or consultants to enhance the persuasive effect of child-oriented advertising campaigns. Given the well-established limitations on children’s ability to recognize and defend against commercial persuasion, such efforts raise sensitivities that warrant careful consideration by the field and particularly by those individuals involved in such practices, especially in those cases when younger children are targeted by advertisers. If it is unfair to direct commercial persuasion to audiences of young children, then it would seem to be equally unfair to employ psychological theory and research evidence to more effectively accomplish persuasive outcomes in young child viewers, at least insofar as the promotion of applied commercial interests are concerned. While drawing lines in this realm may be challenging, careful consideration is warranted to insure that psychologists hold faithful to their mission to benefit their research subjects, their clients, and the society at large.
I. PUBLIC POLICY
Restrict Advertising Primarily Directed to Audiences of Young Children
We recommend that television advertising be restricted during programming directed to or seen by audiences primarily composed of children 8 years of age and under.
State Advertising Disclaimers So They Can Be Understood by the Intended Audience
We recommend that advertising disclaimers in children's programming be stated in language children can understand and be aired in both audio and video for a time length conducive to reading, hearing, and comprehending.
II. PSYCHOLOGICAL RESEARCH
Conduct Research on the Changing Contexts and Modes of Advertising Practices
We recommend that psychologists conduct research on what is new and what is different in advertising that targets children and adolescents, and consider its implications.
Investigate Ad Processing/Effects in Interactive Media Environments
We recommend that psychologists actively investigate how young children comprehend and are influenced by advertising in new interactive media environments such as the Internet and the
World Wide Web
Study the Development of Understanding of Persuasive Intent in More Sophisticated Fashion With Children Older than 8 Years of Age
We recommend that psychologists renew their investigation of the age at which children come to fully comprehend the persuasive intent that necessarily underlies all television advertising.
Study the Role of Gender, Ethnicity, and Culture in Relationship to the Psychological and Social Effects of Advertising on Children
We recommend that psychologists examine whether the psychological processes involved in the understanding of persuasive intent, as well as the impact of exposure to advertising, vary in relationship to gender, race, ethnicity and culture.
Conduct Research on Media Literacy
We recommend that psychologists conduct media literacy research to assist in the development of effective curricula for students at different grade levels.
III. APPLIED PSYCHOLOGY
Provide Public Education
We recommend that psychologists who are knowledgeable about the effects of advertising on children and youth be encouraged to communicate with parents and professionals who work with children and youth.
Support Continuing Education
We recommend that APA support continuing professional education (CPE) programs for psychologists on media literacy, with particular attention paid to issues related to media advertising and marketing to children.
Weigh Professional Practices Associated With Advertising to Children
We recommend that APA undertake efforts to help psychologists weigh the potential ethical challenges involved in professional efforts to more effectively advertise to children, particularly those children who are too young to comprehend the persuasive intent of television commercials.
IV. INDUSTRY PRACTICES
Encourage More Rigorous Industry Self-Regulation
We recommend that the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus publicize its guidelines more widely so that parents and others can call to its attention deviations from the guidelines.
V. MEDIA LITERACY
Develop Media Literacy Curricula
We recommend that psychologists take a central role in developing and implementing effective advertising media literacy curricula for all school grade levels from 3rd through 12th.
VI. ADVERTISING AND SCHOOLS
Restrict School-Based Advertising That Targets Young Children
We recommend that advertising in all forms should be restricted in school environments serving children 8 years old and under.
Conduct Research on Effects of School-Based Commercial Practices
We recommend that psychologists engage in research on the impact of advertising and commercialism in schools.
Advocate Professional Collaborations
We recommend that APA collaborate with other professional and educational organizations to raise public, professional, and political awareness with respect to the increased commercialization of schools.
Task Force members
Chair: Brian Wilcox, PhD
Joanne Cantor, PhD
Peter Dowrick, PhD
Dale Kunkel, PhD
Susan Linn, EdD
Edward Palmer, PhD