Thursday, March 31, 2011

Yay! The Commercials Are On!

“Mom/Dad, I want (fill in the blank) that I saw on (media du jour)!!!!”

Marketing to kids is nothing new. Anyone who’s grown up in the era of television can sing the jingles for every sugar-coated cereal ever promoted. Anyone remember “oot-fray oops-lay”?

But 21st century parents must deal with exponential message proliferation. That free version of Angry Birds you use to appease the 8-year-old in the car carries a link in every frame. Product placement is intrusive. A character on a recent episode of Chuck quoted Subway’s pitch for a new sandwich verbatim.

How can you shield your child from the barrage? Truth is, you can’t, unless you’re willing to quarantine her; easy when she’s a baby; but increasingly hard in the pre-school years; and all but impossible after that.

A more effective strategy is immunization. It’s possible to message-proof your child. This strategy worked in my house:

• Watch commercial TV--broadcast, Hulu, cable--with your child. Don’t skip the commercials. Instead, ask, “What do you think that commercial is about?” Explain that ads are specially made to make us want things we don’t really need. It’s better for us to figure out for ourselves what we need, and work hard for those things that matter. Talk about product placement, and point it out every time you see it. “Spot the Product Placement” can be one of the best family games ever.

• Take your child shopping. Online or in the store, share your reasons for your choices. Look for every opportunity to remind her of the commercial she saw or the toy ad she found in the Sunday paper. It’s amazing how quickly even pre-schoolers learn that there are people who want us to want things, and we get to decide.

• Let you child see commercial influences in your own choices. I’m a brand loyalist. I buy Sony electronics, wash our clothes with Tide, have finally settled on Hondas or (used) Volvos for our driving needs. My kids know what brand values are, that they appeal to emotion and represent a product or service in its best light. They also know that I back up my emotional purchase decisions with research, and try to make informed purchases that also please me and the family.

Talking your child through commercials is the easiest way to foster responsible, informed consumerism. If you think of your child’s “I want that” as an opportunity for conversation and learning, you can make marketing and advertising literacy part of their basic skills set. Let me sum it up with a catchy jingle. Umm … maybe not. -- Jan Hames

Jan Hames is a marketing and communications professional in Austin, Texas. Her current interest is healthcare reform.


  1. For a scary look into where product placement is headed -- if it isn't already there -- check out "The Jone$es" a 2009 film with Demi Moore and David Duchovny. Rated R, this film is not for kids, but it will convince you that you need to message-proof your kids, liberally sprinkling in lessons on fiscal responsibility.