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Outsmarting Sneaky Marketing

Alvin F. Poussaint, M.D.

Pushy Advertising
In America, our market-driven economy has brought us great prosperity but also encouraged a rampant commercialism that has some troubling side effects for families. Has incessant marketing to your children ever frustrated you? If it has, you have every right to be irritated. Consumer marketing to kids -- from toys to clothes to foods -- isn't in the best interest of your child.

Children influence billions of dollars of family spending each year, so they're specifically targeted as consumers. That's why there are dozens of advertisements during children's television shows. Since the purpose of effective advertising is to make people feel that they really "need" a product, objects are usually presented with exciting visuals and music that exaggerates their appeal to children.

Toy Stories
Trouble is, young kids often believe that advertisements are real. After all, children are not yet critical thinkers and don't know that the toys presented in a commercial may be hyper-glamorized on TV compared to the quality of the real thing. Has your child ever been deeply disappointed with a new toy because it didn't meet the expectations created by the advertisement?

Protecting Your Child's Health
Of course, the most egregious example of consumer exploitation is the tobacco industry: It promotes a product that literally kills people and has created generations of nicotine-addicted adolescents. You must educate your child about both commercials and advertising to help her become a critical consumer.

Beware of Junk Food
Your child is also vulnerable to ads for candy and foods that suggest he'll be happier if he copiously chows down on these products, which are usually loaded with calories, sugar, and fat. Obesity is increasing among American children, putting them at higher risk for related disorders such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke. Pediatricians largely attribute this trend to kids consuming high-calorie foods and not getting enough exercise. When children watch three to five hours of TV per day, not only are they physically inactive, but they're also subjected to a barrage of junk food ads, which encourages their high-calorie snacking while watching the tube.

Perhaps the biggest temptation that parents must resist is the toy tie-in programs with fast-food chains. Toys and action figures from TV shows and movies are given away in some meal packages, luring children into fast-food outlets again and again.

Creating Teachable Moments
Advertisers use indirect, sophisticated marketing techniques that lead kids to pressure parents into buying certain products or shopping at a particular store. For instance, a large chain department store uses Sesame Street characters on a line of children's clothing to promote its store to children and, by extension, to their parents.

You can use such sneaky marketing ploys as an opportunity to teach your child to become media-savvy:

  • Explain the purpose of advertising. Help your child understand that companies are trying to sell her something.
  • Discuss the ways advertisers dress up items to make them alluring, while not giving a true picture of the products.

Many educators are so concerned about the negative effects of the media and advertising on kids that media-literacy courses have started appearing in schools in the earliest grades. These programs are a first step towards protecting kids from being seduced by market-driven corporations. But we can't just leave it to the schools. We must be actively involved in educating our children about the realities of media advertising. It will save us all a lot of grief later.


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