It is estimated that children watch on average of two and a half hours of television every day, the equivalent on an annual basis of a 38-day marathon of TV viewing. It is worth remembering that the advertising impact is restricted to those hours spent viewing commercial television channels. A lot of television viewing takes place on weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings, when parents are at work or even asleep. Therefore it may go largely unmonitored.
Children have a lot of potential power as consumers. In addition to their own spending money on items such as clothes, music and video games, they also have the ability to exert considerable influence over the parental decision making that goes into buying household items. They are especially influential on environmental issues, about which they show great concern.
Helping Your Child to Think About Advertising
Television can be an important learning tool for your children, but it must be used with the greatest care. As part of the television "picture" advertising can provide your children with a great deal of information about the world around them and may also be a child's introduction to what it means to be a consumer.
Advertisements can help a child appreciate the different choices, and how to select wisely. But it must always be remembered that children need close parental guidance when it come to advertising. Advertising and you Child is intended to help parents help themselves and their children to judge information and make informed choices. Nothing can take the place of the important role played by parents.
It is useful with very young children to start by talking about the general meaning of advertising. For the purposes of such a discussion, parents may want to cut out and then refer to a magazine or newspaper advertisement. Show your child such an advertisement and ask:
- What do you notice first when you look at this advertisement?
- What do you like or dislike about this advertisement?
- What product is being advertised?
- How does the advertisement make you feel about the product?
- What questions should you ask before buying this product?
Encourage your child to seek more information than the advertisement contains. How is the product used? Does it work well? Do you really need this particular product? What other similar products are available and at what cost?
This line of questioning is guaranteed to spark a lively discussion. More importantly, it will serve as a good starting point for turning your child into a wise consumer. Children should know that the purpose of advertising is to get people interested in buying products, not to entertain the viewer or reader.
Extend these discussion to television advertising. Talk about the ways in which the product is made attractive on the television screen. Assist your child in identifying the claims made in the advertisement and then sort the statements into two categories: fact opinion. Ask your child to consider which of the claims can be proved and which cannot.
When your children watch television be sure that they know when advertisements start and stop. Young children may consider the advertisements to be part of the program so it is a good idea to identify the advertisements for them. At the beginning of the advertisement say:
"Oh, it's an advertisement. After the advertising break we'll be able to go back to the story."
Help your child to recognize when the advertisement starts by pointing out the "End of Part One" headings, program credits etc.
Explaining How Advertising Works
When explaining how advertisements work, try to compare them to ideas and situations that your child will understand. For example, you may wish to say that:
Advertising makes a product into a "star"
An advertisement dresses up the product, puts make-up on it, shines bright lights on it, and makes it look larger than life. The advertiser hopes that it will make consumers want to have the "star" in their homes.
Advertising makes a product "stand out in a crowd"
It's difficult to be seen in a crowd, things get lost and tend to blend together. If one person in the crowd is wearing a brightly coloured outfit or a large hat, however, that person will stand out. An advertiser wants the product to stand out in your mind and, as a result, highlights it in a way that attracts attention. One way to demonstrate this is to take your child to the supermarket. Ask your child to point to the boxes, cans or bags that feature artwork that is the most noticeable on the shelf. They will then come to understand that packaging is another form of advertising.
The Rest of the Story
Children should learn that advertising gives them some, but not all of the information needed to make informed choices. Help your child to understand that product information does not come from advertising exclusively and that an advertisement is only an introduction, not the whole story.
How can you help your child learn to investigate products before making a decision about purchase? The best way for parents to make this point is to lead through personal example. Involve your child in the decisions about family purchases, from clothing to appliances, food to presents. Let your child see how you weigh the relative merits of particular brands. Help your child in making similar decisions even when it comes to small toy and entertainment purchases.
Fact and Fantasy
Whenever and wherever possible, watch television with your children and urge them to discuss and think critically about what they are seeing. When viewing advertisements, talk about the various elements which may make them deceptive or misleading. These discussions need not create cynics nor inevitably lead to the conclusion that all advertising is suspect. Instead, checks on fantasy and reality in advertisements can foster responsible decision-making behavior in growing children.
Suppose you and your young children see a TV advertisement for a toy space station. The advertisement features special sound effects made by the toy and the setting for the space station is suitably fantastic with a backcloth of stars and planets. After the advertisement do a "reality check" with your children to help them distinguish between reality and fantasy:
- How big is the space station?
- Who or what is making the noise you can hear?
- Where do the stars and planets come from?
- Are they part of the toy?
Make it Real for Your Child
As parents you can also help your children judge the reality behind the images in advertising by encouraging them to draw upon their personal experiences. For example, take an advertisement showing children performing tricks on a particular brand of skateboard. Ask you child:
"If you bought that skateboard, do you think you would be able to do the tricks the children in the advertisement are doing?"
"How long do you think they had to practise before they could do them?"
"What do you think would happen if you tried to do those stunts without practicing first?"
After seeing an advertisement like this, talk about a skill or activity that your child has attempted to master. Whether it is staying within the lines of a colouring book or riding a bike without stabilizers, reminding your child just how much work and practice was needed in order to improve at the activity with help identify realistic (and unrealistic) claims in advertising. He or she will be less likely to be misled into thinking that particular equipment, food or clothing can provide short-cuts to improving his or her own skills.
The following are additional ideas to encourage your child to think carefully about advertising:
Identify a product you have seen advertised on TV and then visit a shop that sells the product. Compare the television version with the actual product. Ask your child: How are they different? Which is more exciting?
A Star is Born
Choose a product in your home and make it a "TV Star". Put the product in a box and dress it up as if it were going to appear on a real television. Use crayons or paints to decorate the box, shine a flashlight on the product, etc. This exercise helps your child understand the process of advertising and how products can be enhanced by various advertising techniques.
Make a List
List the types of advertisements that appear during children's programs. Help your child keep a record of how many of each type (food, toys and clothing) are shown in a given period of time.
Whatch Your Language
Look for words that come up again and again in advertising. See if your child can find particular words that are used for particular types of products, like "delicious" for cereal, or "beautiful" for dolls.
Who's That Girl?
Identify the spokesperson for the product and encourage your child to speculate about why an advertiser may have chosen that particular person. How is the product made more attractive or interesting by virtue of its association with the spokesperson?
What's the Story?
Break the advertisement down into parts of its story. Ask your child to decide which elements of the story provide information about the product and which parts are not relevant to a purchasing decision. Encourage your child to list the things he or she still needs to know after seeing the commercial.
Junior "AD" Agency
When your child has grown comfortable with thinking about how advertisement works, ask him or her to draw and colour a series of advertisements, such as a breakfast cereal, transformer, bicycles, doll and board game. Ask your child why he or she decided to present products in certain ways? What was highlighted? Are facts or opinions used in the advertisements?
Teachers report that one of the most effective ways to teach children is to involve them directly in the subject at hand. By encouraging your children to put themselves in the shoes of the makers of the products and their advertisers, you open up a new and exciting way for your children to think and make informed decisions.
The exercises suggested here should help your children pay attention to advertising on television or in newspapers and magazines and enable them to have a better understanding of how and why advertising works.