In a consumer driven world it is becoming increasingly difficult to find the truth as we sift through the advertising messages we are bombarded with daily. We might think that fat-free means completely free from fat and that decaffeinated means no caffeine (and that is precisely what the marketing geniuses out there want us to believe), but those terms are misleading. While it is confusing for us, it is even more so for our children. We need to educate ourselves and then our children before we turn them loose in a world that tells them they must have this or there is no harm in consuming that.

From birth, children are the target for massive marketing ploys. Did you know that in 2004, children were exposed to 25,600 television ads (10,700 minutes)? That's 7.4 days. Did you also know that companies spend over $17 billion a year on advertising to American children and some even hire anthropologists to study children's behavior in order to sell them stuff?

We need to sit down with our children and clue them in on some of the debauchery dreamed up by persuasive advertisers.

Things are not always as they appear

HBO once ran a series for kids on consumerism and one of their episodes dealt with the trickery involved in advertising aimed at children. They showed commercials where dolls appeared to walk and speak on their own, game pieces moved themselves and a slew of accessories that did not actually come with a particular toy. While we understand that these things are not true, small children don't.

The show also delved into food advertising and showed what we see in photos isn't always what we think it is. For instance, milk photographs watery so the milk you see on cereal is actually thinned down glue. The ice cream sparkling and cool is shortening with pounds of sugar blended in. An advertiser's job is to make us believe in products and companies go to great lengths to convince us that what we see is what we get. It is not always so.

Triggers to buy

Did you know that the color yellow and the smell of vanilla make us want to buy more? Advertisers do. They spend lots of money and time studying what triggers make consumers want to spend more money on purchases. These little tips are sold to businesses to make them more profitable. Being aware of and teaching our children about triggers will help them to use discernment when shopping.


A great deal of marketing research goes into product placement. Walk down any cereal aisle and you'll see the healthy options, the high-fiber and the low-sugar cereals on the tippy-top shelves. The sugar-laden, prize-included, colorful, character-represented kid cereals are at a child's eye-level. Also good for your kids to know is that whole foods are on the outer perimeters of grocery stores while the center of the store houses all the processed and refined foods.

Companies not only pay for a product's location in the store, but also its placement in media. One of the things I love about the Harry Potter movie is that there were no Pepsi cans, Samsung cell phones or Nike sneakers. When we sit down and watch a movie with our children, we can point out the product placement and explain how financial backing given to the project leads to the product's use.


Recommendations are another thing children should be aware of. For instance, when advertisements that say, "9 out of 10 dentists recommend," the math is really tricky. Here's what happens. A toothbrush or toothpaste company sends cases of their product to dentists to give to their clients. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But, we need to be aware that the only endorsement comes from the fact that the dentist does not take the time or trouble to send the product back. It is great to have the products to hand out and it would cost money to ship them back, so dentists keep them and that is considered an endorsement.

Celebrity endorsement

Teach your children that just because their favorite pop star drinks a particular brand of soda on a television show, it does not make it the perfect drink. Just because an athlete wears a particular sneaker, it doesn't make the shoe better than a less expensive counterpart. Celebrities get paid millions of dollars to eat, drink, wear and use products that they might not otherwise eat, drink, wear and use. It's business for them. For our children, it's an endorsement.

Corporate models

With older children, I think it behooves us to research corporations and find out how they compare to other similar companies. There are corporations out there that utilize terrible practices to turn a profit. Conversely, there are corporations with great integrity, humanitarian spirit and thoughtful practices. It really does matter where we make our purchases and who we support. Also teach your children about small businesses and their impact on local economy.

One good way to teach children (particularly the tweens and teens) good consumerism is to look at websites geared to teaching producers how to market. When you see it broken down into what words to use, what psychological and emotional triggers work and what colors and smells are triggers, it drives the point home. We can teach our children the lengths companies will go to in order to get their products into our homes.

Children need to be taught that they are too smart to be puppets. With a little research, they can be savvy enough to make good consumer choices. If we start young, we can help overturn a system that has us going into debt to make our children happy. If we teach them now, they will do better with their children.

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