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Ethical Issues of Advertising to Children

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Published: Thu, 22 Feb 2018

Ethical Dilemma, Practices and Implications of Children Advertising

Creating outstanding products and programs to win marketplace is not an easy job. Specialists in marketing have to develop comprehensive research plans, carry out market researches, analyse the data collected and finally come up with marketing plans that target specific consumer segments. Finding out about human psychology, their preferences, choices and appeals are not only difficult but at times disappointingly inaccurate. Yet marketers today consider themselves experts in such endeavours, and are capable of achieving the almost impossible marketing objectives. 

As if these aspects of marketing are not difficult enough, in modern-day marketing field there is a niche in which the marketers have to deal with children. The most difficult task is perhaps the determination of the choices and preferences of these fickle individuals who are still developing, absorbing the environment and learning to become like their adult counterparts. The task of marketing to children is not only daunting but also critical for many businesses such as Nike, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Disney, Pepsi, Sega,Kellogs and Mattel to name a few. These companies go through extensive research and consultancy to get to the untapped market of child consumers.

One such example is evident in Dan S. Cuff and Robert H. Reiner’s (1998) Youth Market Systems. According to the authors the development of outstanding products and programs to win children’s marketplace is entirely different from the rest of the market segments. For this purpose they invent a marketing process called Youth Market Systems. The System ensures marketers consider all aspects of marketing to children or teens for any category of goods or services that companies want to sell.

There Isa great need for a system of analysis and interpretation as the authors feel that information pertaining to cognitive, emotional and social needs of age groups could transform the programs or product features that target them. Cuff and Reiner’s (1998) strategy merely opens window to the world of advertising to children. As one investigates the categories of products and services that are available to young children, one also tend to develop the consistent belief that children are a separate kind of consumer group and must be treated differently, from advertising to the designing of products.

All these efforts no doubt are valid and justified in their own place and position, however a niggling thought crosses the mind when one observes the various approaches and efforts that marketers adopt to reach out to the vulnerable youth consumer segment. There are reasons for these tactics. Cuff and Rehire record approximately $1 billion annual gross revenue for Mattel Incorporated that sells Barbie’s. There are others such as Garfield, He-Man, Cabbage Patch Kids, Power Rangers, LEGO, GI Joes and a myriad of upcoming products invading the market with the sole purpose to tap on these young consumers who are bound by childish emotions and penchant for toys and games. Schemes and strategies are being devised to win over these young consumers for high stakes amounting to billions of pounds.

What is more, advertising and marketing to children does not only involve the youngsters but their parents also. For example the Youth Market System identifies parents, grandparents and other close family members as the most influential on children’s purchasing decision. Exploring this group is critical because they are the ones who have control over the wallet and it is on them that children are dependent. The complexity in children marketing therefore lies in attracting both the youngsters and appealing to the parents. A winning formula must be developed to attract both the parents and children. The complexity of this formula makes success rate low which induces marketers to resort to all kinds of schemes and strategies to achieve their desired target, including crossing the line of ethics especially in the field of advertising of children related products (Cuff and Rehire 1998).

Scholars and parents alike feel that there are no avenues that advertisers and businesses will not exploit to reach to the young consumers. Exploitations through mental, moral and physical developments of children are common. The strategies to target children involve creation of wants to satisfy the impulse rather than actual needs.

For example consoles such as Mattel’s Hot Wheels, and Barbie’s fashion collections are not really required by children but wants created by advertisers and marketing campaigns. Long term needs satisfaction has been replaced by short term needs. They are not the only ones exploited. Their parents are also plagued with different kinds of created needs for their children such as the wellbeing; status symbol; and their selfish need to have their child preoccupied with the multitude of products and free them from child responsibilities.

Statement of the Problem

These aspects portray not only the ugly but also the unethical sides of the world of advertising. How true are these aspects and to what extent do advertisers reach to capture their target consumers? Do they cross the borders of ethics or not to maximise gains from vulnerable consumer market? And what, if anything, should be done to control and ultimately restrict the freedom of advertising aimed at children are some of the areas that the following research will endeavour to enumerate.

Literature Review

Children have become the key target for many advertisers. Children are vulnerable, easy to exploit consumers and they perceive things as advertisers want them to perceive, or so many of us believe. Despite the fact that children are nowadays smart and knowledgeable of the marketplace nevertheless for many marketers they are relatively easy to target due to the sheer size of the children’s consumer market. Advertisers thrive by earning billions of pounds with the backing and funding of the profit seeking organizations that hire them. These companies are not only producing goods that appeal to the children but they are also exploiting their parents.

The dual targeting approach makes this market segment attractive as well as representative of high yield for investment. For example in many regions of the world including the US, Europe and Japan, companies are investing billions so that they can capture and tap the youth market segment but at the same time they are also reaping billions in return. Advertisers and marketers are entrusted with the task to achieve sales targets by generating desired actions from the segment. The wide appeal has motivated many professionals to enter and adopt whatever means and measures to achieve their targets.

Ethical implications surpasses but few in the field of advertising that target children. For these reasons the authority, lobbyists and parents are demonstrating their concerns regarding the impact of media and advertising on children. The following literature review will first outline why and how children are targeted, followed by a review of the kind of ethical implications advertising and the media has on children. This will be followed by an exploration of the measures that are being taken to counteract the problem, if any.

Children Advertising

Advertising to children has not been an issue until recently with the boom of the media. More and more parents are concerned about the legal controls that the authority levy on advertising criteria as most are concerned about the kind of tactics advertisers are using to influence children for the sake of maximizing their profits. For example Begot and Dottie (2004) note that pornography, cigarette and tobacco related, alcohol and other products prohibited for children are being promoted on television freely without restriction. Advertisement messages for these adult related products are tailored for adult consumption but due to the appeal of mass viewership and the higher profits, the advertisements are aired during children television primetime. As a result the advertisements expose children to contents that are not meant for them. Had that been the only case then the issue of advertisement would not have been so controversial.

Research suggest that children between the ages of 6 and 14 years old watch about 25 hours of television per week in the US and they are exposed to 20,000 commercials in a year (Moore and Lutz 2000).Children at this age are vulnerable because they are developing a sense to comprehend and evaluate messages in the environment. Stimulated messages on television not only have a harmful impact but they are also detrimental in persuading children to develop wants for products that are not meant for them.

According to Moore and Lutz (2000) “Beyond advertisements, children gain marketplace information from the products they encounter, advice from friends and relatives, and their own consumption experiences. Through consumption, children learn what products are good and bad, whether advertising claims are truthful, what brands they prefer, and even products that convey social meanings apart from their functional properties.” For children the experiences that heighten their importance in their social circle and the adult world have the most meaning. They do not have the ability to counteract or check on the viability or the authenticity of the message initially when they are young as they are dependent on adults for explanatory information accessible only through print media.

By the time children grow to the teenage level the functionality of literacy diminishes tube replaced by their desire and need to fit in their social life. Without consideration for product usefulness or content, children develop wants for products beyond their pockets and reach.

Similarly, children are also exposed to advertisements for fashion products that are actually designed for adult consumers but they are often “condensed” to tailor to the younger audience with the purpose to include the young consumers in the marketing campaigns. For this reason children develop receptivity for fashion products without the required information for decision making. Moore and Lutz (2000) recognize the importance of children’s advertising and its impact on young audience by revealing that children are receptive to advertising demonstrated in experiments of relation between ads and products. They write:

“Research investigating children’s receptivity to television advertising has studied what children understand, under what circumstances they are persuaded, and how their responses evolve as they mature (e.g. Macklin 1987; Redder 1981). Drawing extensively on information processing and stage models, researchers have gained substantial insight into the development of children’s cognitive skills and their deployment during ad processing.” (Moore and Lutz 2000)

Their research indicates that children are at a stage where they are developing cognitive abilities. Advertisers vie on this susceptible developmental stage by targeting the “limited processors” of children that have not yet acquired efficient information processing strategies, a fact that may be reflected in their inability to distinguish between central and peripheral content in message learning.” (Moore and Lutz2000). They further this idea by writing that at the stage of ages 8and 12 children are susceptible to information that are stimulated and that target the vulnerability of the strategic processors. 

Because at this age group children tend to spontaneously employ efficient information storage and retrieval strategies. They organize and retrieve information based on available information and stimulus.
“Unless their knowledge of advertising is expressly activated by such acute, these children tend not to think critically or generate counterarguments spontaneously. They may also neglect to differentiate between central and peripheral content when learning new information. When there is an appropriate cue in their environment, however, they are likely to retrieve and use relevant information.” (Moore and Lutz2000).

Therefore children may develop recognition mechanism on how advertising should be viewed but that is dependent on external factors like parental guide, government policies or other mediating channels. Evidence suggests that there is substantial amount of influence on this age group when they are not guided in the preliminary stages in understanding the intent of advertisements. Research reveals that significant guidelines must be levied before children rationale and deliberate on the content of advertisements shown on television.

“Advertising is thus implicitly accorded substantial power to shape children’s thinking until they acquire sufficient cognitive and attitudinal defences. (Moore and Lutz 2000).
Other than the cognitive development impressions on children, advertising also influence them to take actions. In a study by Smithland Wynyard (1982) on consumer behaviour and response towards product trials offer through advertisements suggests that “because consumers know that advertisers wish to present their brands in a favourable light, they react to ads by partially discounting claims and forming tentatively held brand beliefs and attitudes. In contrast when consumers have direct usage experience, they form stronger, more confidently held brand beliefs and attitudes. This phenomenon has been observed in a number of studies with adults” and may be consistent with the case of children.

The same expectations is held with regard to children advertising as researchers are of the opinion that with age, the capacity to form brand opinions tend to be more among older children. For example children of age groups 10 and 12, and 12 and 14year olds tend to tell the truth and more likely to be sceptical towards the institution of advertising rather than blindly accept advertisement claims.

According to Michel Begot and Barbara Dottie (2004) children advertising are dynamic and highly appealing. The authors are of the opinion that children are the key target for advertisers because brand preferences in this age group remain unchanged for a long time. Children remain loyal to the brands they are used to yet at the same time they have growing pockets to afford more expensive items as they grow older.

The above aspects indicate that children though are smart and knowledgeable to sceptically evaluate and experiment with products through advertisement claims they are also aware of the fact that these advertisers’ claim may not be true. At this point it is arguable to note that some school of thoughts separate the vulnerable youngsters from the smart young consumers who have the cognitive ability to critically examine the advertisement claims and disregard them if not proven true. According to Robertson and Resister (1974) “if ads present information different from a child’s actual experience, confusion may result and trust in advertising may be determined. Conversely, others suggest that until children actually experience discrepancies between products as advertised and as consumed, they are unable to fully comprehend advertising’s persuasive intent.”

For this reason Moore and Lutz (2000) claim that advertising use frames for product trials known as transformational advertising in which adult consumers are drawn towards the products prior to advertising exposures by asking them to participate in the process of experimenting and interacting with the product with the view to interpret, evaluate and subsequently form their experience impressions. The expectancy or discrepancy frame sets are formed for comparison of later product trials which help in determining discrepancies or consistencies of product qualities. Mooreland Lutz (2000) present the testing paradigm to show that rational consumers are clever in testing advertising claims of product performances. Testing paradigm enable them the opportunity to evaluate and form opinions. Children, on the other hand do not have the same reaction or taste for distinguishing discrepancy in the same manner.

On the other hand Ziegler (1996) believes that advertising and product trials have different effects on children’s capacity to integrate multiple sources of information for consideration. Young children tend to engage in one-dimensional thinking pattern and rely on multiple dimensions for a given task. Integration is imperative for children because they are dependent on this integration processing of information for forming perceptual domains and consumer behaviour. When younger children are presented with information it is encoded and stored in the recesses of the mind, and whenever needed retrieve it for evaluation. Information integration is basically combining new information presented in the media with the old information, and comparing the two. Disparate media information result in discrepancy inexperience. This in turn results in loss of trust in advertisement messages.

Not all children however are wise enough to discriminate information. Moore and Lutz (2000) believe that age differences differentiate expectations and credibility of advertising. They write “Younger children have been found to hold more positive attitudes about advertising, to be more likely to believe its claims, and to be less likely to understand its essential purpose. Thus, among younger children advertising’s credibility is not likely to arise as a concern, and they are likely to perceive both advertising and a product trial experience as believable sources of information.” (Moore and Lutz2000). Clearly, this statement identifies with the fact that younger children are more susceptible to advertising and they are prone to take actions without critical evaluation. For older children advertisers may not integrate strong expectations about a brand and instead focus on the stronger results to generate confidence in product usage (Fazio1986).

Alternatively there are groups of advertisers who vie on the physical habits of children. For example one of the most invidious techniques is to use junk food in advertising for children. The use of celebrities to endorse these foods without any consideration for balanced diet or fitness is common in the industry. “In the UK the BBC which is funded by licence and tax payers, received around 32 million pounds in 2001for franchising its Tweenies’ characters to McDonald’s – the Food Commission found that the Tweenies’ products were high in junk elements.”

Despite this fact the UK government continues to allow brands such as Cadbury’s to market its products and launch campaigns that have negative effects on the physical health of children. These efforts are designed to generate more profits and not the public interest. They are aware of the fact that the lack of exercise coupled with high calorie food result in obesity and other related diseases in children. The rate of obesity has doubled in the past 10 years from 8.5percent to 15 present among children under 16 years (The Lancet 2003).Yet advertisements continue to infiltrate the media and other channels with the objective to vie on children.

Advertising Strategies

Children have long been recognized as the target market for many companies due to its economic potential. Recent estimates by Moore(2004) indicate that children and associated markets account for 24billion dollars of direct spending and it has an additional 500 billion dollars influence over family purchases. Children are considered to be potential gold mines for campaigners and advertisers alike. Television channels and the print media as well as companies are constantly engaged in complex “product placements, sales promotions, packaging design, public relations, and in-school marketing” activities with the view to reach out to children and their parents.

Given the time children spend in front of the television, on the Internet and media gadgets, marketers realize that children form a huge consumer base for “toys, breakfast cereals, candy and snacks” etc. For this purpose there are more and more commercials on television to induce buying preference and action. TV commercials especially are being developed to induce children to purchase and participate in programs promoting cars, fashion, cell phones and other such adult related products. According to Moore (2004) “At the root of the children’s advertising debate is the question of children’s unique vulnerabilities. Concerns about young children range from their inability to resist specific selling efforts to a fear that without benefit of well-developed critical thinking skills they may learn undesirable social values such as materialism”(Macklin, 1986 qt. Moore 2004).

Her view is also affirmed by Cuff Andrei her (1998) who indicate through their study that children are susceptible to advertisements because of the extensive measures and strategies adopted by the advertisers. Their study reveals that marketers devise winning formulas to gain the confidence of children by sending out messages that winning children are those who are associated with certain brands. These may be Barbie, He-Man, Teletubbies or Spider-Man. Identification and association are the keys to the winning formula.

The success rate of the winning formula depends on how deep an impact the product or brand has through the advertisements. These are developed based on the knowledge of the development of the mind of the growing consumers. The product leverage mix is formed based on qualities that are demanded by children such as characteristics of aero, power of a character and/or qualities of the product.

The product leverage matrix is a comprehensive model formed for analysing the needs and wants of the young consumers and a guide to allow marketers to have look at the bigger picture.
Once the matrix is determined the medium, concept, content, context, process, characters or personality, and attitude or style are established. Elements to be noted include: What is the psychological point of view of the target audience? What are the visual and verbal contents that will be used for the product? How marketers will form the context of the advertisements for the target audience and the kind of processes that will be involved to create an interface for interaction with the potential consumers? Character association or the use of personality to denote product quality is also common in the designing of the matrix etc. (Cuff and Rehire 1998).

The marketers are also aware that young children are intelligent individuals who exercise their developing cognitive abilities by associating qualities with certain images. For example Bugs Bunny is clever rabbit or Kellogg’s Pop Tarts are fruity flavoured etc. They are able to associate as well as distinguish between products and characteristics of the products. Identifying the points of difference from the children’s perspectives is critical but not impossible. Acuffand Rehire (1998) also note that these are assumptions that adults make regarding the preferences of children such as teens wanting more energy; identifying with hero athletes; wanting great taste or new product names. Yet at the same time they also warn the marketers that:

“…more often than not these assumptions are left unexamined as to veracity and strength. It’s an important practice to check assumptions: check what the leverage actually is, and its relative power versus what has been assumed. More often than not, adults make erroneous assumptions about what kids perceive to be important and powerful because adults are looking at their product or program through adult eyes. It is critical to get at the actual leverage rather than the assumed leverage. With the above hypothetical Enerjuice example in mind, adults may be surprised when testing directly with kids’ focus groups reveals that the new product’s blue colour is its most powerful point of leverage and that the majority of kids tested dislike the new name.” (Cuff and Rehire 1998).

The basic premise in such a condition is that marketers need to ensure they give promises and fulfil them too thereby gaining competitive advantage. This kind of positioning helps them to organize and categorize products in the mind of the targeted consumers. In the end however, the marketers must realize that it is the bigger picture that needs to be satisfied – that is product leverage matrix. At the centre of the matrix are the crucial elements that should not be neglected such as gender, stage, age, structure, dimension, style and past experience.

The consumers are at the end of this list and are the most powerful deciding factor that can make or break their products. They conclude that “Successful products and programs are those that satisfy their needs and wants in the short term (impulse) or in the long term. While a colourful and involving Tricks cereal package with a maze on the back provides for short-term needs satisfaction, Mattel’s Hot Wheel scars year after year continue to provide young boys with something they need and want — small, easily manipulability, colourful minibars that are fun and involving to play “cars” with (Vroom! Vroom!) And to accumulate and collect.” (Cuff and Rehire 1998).

Ethical Implications

Children advertising have attracted legal, scholars and parental attention. Proponents of the children targeted marketing and advertising argue that the financial backing that children programs are getting derive from sponsors who make programs on television possible. Advertising to children are therefore motivated by profitability. Furthermore they also argue that these sponsors target a separate niche market of children of age group 12 and 14. Advertising provides them with product information and does not really provide stimulus as children in this age group are more like adults with their specific ideologies, attitudes and behaviours where preferences of products and services are concerned. They have been exposed to persuasive messages for a long time and can distinguish persuasive messages from empowering ones. Thus they are product and advertising savvy.

On the other hand opponents such as parents and consumer protection groups argue that advertising directed at children are not only unethical but they are also manipulative stimulants that promote consumerism in children from a very young age. Advertisements create wants and poor nutritional habits that induce children to pester parents for products that are harmful for them (Berger 1999). Their opinions have been affirmed by Cuff and Rehire (1997) who suggest that preschool children at two and three years old tend to identify with frequently seen images and therefore would be attracted towards spokes-character in advertising and marketing.

The desire to see these characters and related products they see on television, packaging and promotions induce demand for the same among children. According to DelVecchio (1998, p. 225), “The objective is to select an effective piece of advertising that will break through clutter, communicate the name of the brand, its key feature and benefit, and do so in a cool way that will elicit a child’s request.” Those advertisers are successful who successfully use innovation, meticulous marketing, planning and massive exposures in their key characters according to Schneider (1989).
The ethical dilemma enters the scenario when one refers to the degree and extent of the use of stimuli. Research indicates that spokes-characters use role play and features that would relate animated with human characters and thereby influence children’s attitudes(Cheat et al 1992).

The issues surrounding the use of advertising characters to children stem from the fact that the characters are commoditized without consideration for its impact on the children. Without regulations, advertisers tend to deviate from the conventional use of these characters. They treat children and adult related products alike. That is perhaps the reason why Cross (2002) indicates that there has been a rise in restrictions on tobacco advertising during the 1990sto curb tobacco companies from targeting children by the use of spokes-characters in their advertising and marketing campaigns.

In this context advertisements have a deep ethical impact on the cognitive and development of growing children and the authority needs to recognize this fact. According to Redder (1981) children are vulnerable and fail to utilize cognitive plans for storing and retrieving information. The categorization of processing deficiencies stem from the child’s inability to use the actual strategies and aids for storing information in the memory. Limited processing capabilities in young age group especially induce children to learn through memorization and are not capable of using tools for separating, segregating and processing information according to utility.

Instead they use information incidentally. Television uses fast pace visual graphics and audio-visual medium to influence pre-schoolers and around that age group. The effects become consistent when children are regularly exposed to these audio-visual images so that they become imprinted on the minds of the young children (Alit et al 1980).Animation and other stimulus have double impact on the information processors of children. As children become receptive to advertisements or images that are regularly shown they come to recognize it in their daily experiences.
Once the images are imprinted in the targeted group’s mind it is easy to generate brand recognition through triggering keys which may be in the form of visual or audio effects. Spokes-characters such cartoon characters have this essential effects on the children. “Studies have found that young children often discriminate between products on simple heuristic of whether one particular quality (which may include brand name or character) is present or not” (Rust and Hyatt 1991 qt.Neeley and Schumann 2004).

Another aspect of advertisements is that children tend to associate with the characters and brand that they prefer. Instilling a brand in children’s minds is easy when spokes-characters are used to define the qualities of the products. For example in Ban’s (1996) study four and five year olds proved to be receptive to product characteristics by inferring spokes-characters. Bah gives the example of cereal boxes. Boxes with cartoons are associated with sugary and sweet cereal meant “for kids” while those that do not have cartoons are bland and not sweet, and are meant for adults. This logic for cereal preferences and choices indicate that advertisements with their logos, characters and cartoons all have a great impact on the minds of young children in this age group.

While Ban’s example seem harmless whereby advertisers are merely using the characteristics and qualities of products to appeal to the young consumers, Fischer et all’s (1991) example raises ethical dilemma. In their study the researchers asked children ages three to six to identify logo brands with the appropriate product. They observe that children tend to associate the Old Joe character with cigarettes. This association has been developed through the inference of the Camel advertisements that uses Old Joe a cartoon character for brand personalization. Hence, the researchers conclude that regardless of the intentions of advertisers and marketers, the effects of advertising on children are inevitable.

Yet there are arguments against this view by psychologists such sapient (1929). This group of individuals are of the view that preoperational children between ages two and seven do not really process information logically or abstractly. They rely on processing strategies such as “transductive” to connect between thoughts and reasoning and therefore not susceptible to the underlying qualities. They may understand simple expressions of but have difficulty in associating it with product differentiation. Consequently Neely and Schumann (2004) write:
“While research findings show that young childr


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