How to ad-proof your kids


'Adproofing kids', by Chris JohnstonIn 2000, Naomi Klein published No Logo, her book on brands, marketing and sweatshop labour. In it, she explored the activities of global sportswear company Nike and its use of 'cool hunters'. These are designers who scour the streets for the edgiest kids in order to identify forward trends, co-opt them, then sell them back to the kids and on to the mainstream. These 'fashion forward' kids were most often poor, young, African American men.

The 'cool hunters' also gave Nike merchandise to those at the cutting edge, knowing that they'd make the brand edgier, infuse it with meaning and increase its market value. In selling the 'swoosh' to mainstream America, Nike sold an image of the lifestyles of these kids as edgy and cool. But the reality for those living it every day was the edge of poverty. They were overwhelmingly forgotten and failed by the system.

Not long after No Logo was published, I interviewed the author and asked her if she saw it as a problem that Nike had integrated itself into the lives of these kids. Klein's reply still resonates today: the problem wasn't that 'cool hunters' were interested in poor African American kids. The problem was that nobody else was.

Every year, marketers and 'cool hunters' spend vast amounts listening to what kids want, not because they care about kids, but because every year the global 'tween' market (children aged six to 13) spends around $328 billion of their own money, and influence another $2 trillion of parental spending.

Marketers know that even toddlers develop brand loyalties, and that winning them over early means 'owning' them for life. They call it 'cradle-to-grave' marketing.

As a result, children are faced with more ads than ever. Advertisers reach them wherever they go, through radio, sports sponsorships, packaging and in-store displays; through supermarket checkouts, flyers, outdoor ads and licensed characters. They use celebrity endorsements, premiums and fundraising, product placement, stealth and viral marketing, magazines, newspapers and the internet.

On average, kids see tens of thousands of ads each year. And that's just on TV.

To reach our kids, marketers employ child psychologists, childhood development theory and medical technologies like fMRI to measure the brain's response to marketing. They follow them as they shop, infuse products with familiar scents and snoop through their bedrooms. Some go online to pose as kids and spruik their brands, while others recruit children to sell to unwitting peers under the guise of friendship.

This is a problem on so many levels. Through a concept called 'Kids Are Getting Older Younger', marketers sell children developmentally inappropriate products: highly sexualised clothing, heavily gender-stereotyped media, toys linked to violent movies they're too young to watch, junk food, luxury brands and toys with limited potential for play — especially the open-ended, imaginative play kids need to become creative, happy adults.

Marketers also utilise 'pester power' to pitch kids against parents, knowing that only the most determined among us can withstand the kind of pressure they encourage.

But the most fundamental problem is this: people have the right to know when we're being sold to. Our ability to resist commercial persuasion requires an awareness of the advertisers' intention to persuade. And while marketers claim that kids are more 'ad-savvy' than ever, children under eight years old are not cognitively equipped to understand an advertiser's persuasive intent: they take ads as helpful, truthful and independent information. It takes a while for kids to understand that advertisers present selective, biased information and leave us to figure out the rest.

Advertising influences our kids. It shapes their perceptions of gender and sexuality, their body image, food preferences, snacking behaviour and brand loyalties. So how can they learn to make independent consumer decisions when their preferences are manipulated well before they can think critically about what's going on?

What's the solution when families are more fragmented and under pressure, and governments are less inclined to regulate the activities of marketers and media outlets?

There are some things parents can do to help our kids: we can limit their exposure to commercial media. We can show them how to question media messages by becoming more media literate ourselves. Together, we can raise awareness of advertisers and manufacturers who target kids in ways that aren't okay, and tell them to back off.

At a recent seminar on children and sexualised media, Alastair Nicholson, former Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia made recommendations to afford our children protection from this kind of commercial exploitation. These included the proposal that Australia incorporate principles of the United Nations' 'Convention on the Rights of the Child' into domestic law.

It's a start, but so much more needs to be done. Our kids need space to figure out who they are and what they value without these ideas being manipulated for profit. Our kids have the right to live in a culture where their innermost thoughts, feelings and vulnerabilities aren't scoped out and sold off to the highest bidder.

Like the 'cool hunters' in No Logo, marketing, brands and advertising push themselves into our children's lives to occupy voids once filled by community, government and family networks. Marketers like these aren't interested in hearing what kids really need. But it's time we made them sit up and listen.

Tania AndrusiakTania Andrusiak is co-author of Adproofing your kids: Raising critical thinkers in a media-saturated world.


Topic tags: tania andrusiak, adproofing kids, no logo, naomi kleim



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Existing comments

fantastic article Tania. The culture that our children have adopted is one that we have allowed and now it is time to take responsibility for teaching them. Example is a good place to start. We need to limit our own “polluting of the mind through advertising”. I was taught some time ago, “what the eye does not see the heart does not crave for”. We receive a mountain of catalogues each day, many of them target kids in some way or another. We let our kids look through these but before they do, we ask them to tell us what they are actually looking for. Usually the answer is “nothing, I just want to look”. So when they find, after looking, that they want to spend all their money on this or that, we remind them that a few minutes ago, they wanted nothing and try to teach then to be critical thinkers. We have also started to teach our children to treat money responsibly. They have three containers into which they divide their pocket money each week. A minimum of 10% has to be put into savings (long term responsibility) a minimum of 10% has to be set aside for charity (social responsibility) and the rest they can do with as they please. They both have things that they are now saving for … so they hardly spend on anything … and when they see need, they are becoming increasingly aware and generous … often dipping into their “do as I please” money and giving it to help others. We are trying to teach then that people matter more than brands … and sometimes I think we are getting through.

dennis | 16 October 2009  

Good luck Dennis, We ran a complex system where I provided school essentials but the kids chose their own clothes books/cds etc. They had a clothes allowance and they paid half and we paid half. If they wanted something I thought not good value or quality but not exactly unsuitable they could persuade me to let they pay for the whole. I had right of veto on anything and that dealt with the things like the sexualisation problem.
Highly complex but well worth the effort.

Today in their 30s they do indulge in things I think a waste of money but on the whole they consider the value of what they buy and make informed decisions. Even the one we all consider extravagant handles her money very well and is currently paying off her house.

Margaret McDonald | 16 October 2009  

Here's my ten cents worth: Just let the kids watch channel two. And put up a no junk mail sign. Children are supposed to be naive. And finally, kids learn by example; if their parents think critically, the kids will too eventually.

Adrian McMaster | 17 October 2009  

When our son was little we had a 'no doing the ads' policy. He wasn't to sing along with the jingles, nor join in with their advertising, or replace missing words like St Something Bank wanted him to do.

We told him that those people on radio and TV got paid to advertise those products. And when the company started paying him to do their advertising it would be different. Until then, no free advertising for companies who wanted him to work for nothing.

The same went for branded tee shirts. If it had the brand on the front they had to pay me to take it from the shop. They want me to advertise? Show me the money.

We also had a phrase, 'No TV junk for us." We reckoned that if it needed heavy advertising it musn't be very good. So it was probably not worth buying.

It's interesting to see him in his twenties buying tee shirts with funny slogans across the front but not too many with brand names emblazoned. Something must have happened in among it all.

It's a war of imagination and I figured that I was as imaginative as the ad men.

Kim Miller | 20 October 2009  

I want a copy !

Rob Thompson | 27 December 2015  

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