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Unethical Practices In Marketing To Children

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Autor:  anton  17 April 2011
Tags:  Unethical,  Practices,  Marketing,  Children
Words: 2802   |   Pages: 12
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Unethical Practices in Marketing to Children

When I was a child, my famous answer to the inevitable “What do you want to be when you grow up” question was “a teacher”. My brother wanted to be a race car driver and my cousin – an actress. Years ago, I would ask the same question and they would usually tend similar responses. Times have changed, however. More and more, children have adapted to the arguably unsettling reality of dollar awareness and when the famous question is raised, the more likely answer these days is “to make money”. (Clay 1) Disconcerting as it may be, we have clearly entered into a new way of life, where materialism has penetrated even the innocent aspirations of a child. It is no secret that that child is now the biggest target of companies who are spending billions of dollars a year to promote their products. Obviously, they are succeeding. It is impossible to turn on the television without seeing a myriad of commercials aimed at the younger generation focused mainly around consumer goods and high in sugar and calorie foods. It is quite evident that today’s advertising is not purely informational. It is linked directly to exploiting individual insecurities and creating false needs. Children are specifically vulnerable to this manipulation because they are inherently inexperienced as consumers. Bombarding them with products leaves no choice in their decision making process. Marketing to children is no longer used to aid the developing consumer, but increase companies’ profits and promote the hunger for more, thus making these practices unethical.

Problem Recognition

In America, teenagers spend about $100 billion a year on sweets, food, drinks, video and electronic products, toys, movies, games, sports, and clothes (Beder 101), children under 12 spend $28 billion and influence a staggering $249 billion spent by their parents. (Clay 3). With figures such as these, it is no surprise why companies are consistently revamping their marketing strategies and promote the same product in various ways. Their goal is to make as much profit from these children as possible. According to psychologist Allen D. Kanner of Berkeley, California, it is not only the materialistic value that children are vulnerable to, they are also prone to what he calls “narcissistic wounding”, explaining that because of advertising, “children feel inferior if they don’t have an endless array of new things”. (Clay 1) In a society where great value is placed on wealth and over-consumption, children are increasingly targeted to believe the capitalistic message from an early age. Although the clichй, “Money does not buy happiness” may be old, evidence shows that not only it is actually true, believing the capitalistic message is bad for people. Through a series of studies, Tim Kasser, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. found that people who “strongly value wealth and related traits tend to have higher levels of distress and lower levels of well-being, worse relationships and less connection to their communities.” (Clay 4) Children, however, are not receiving these messages by accident. These companies know exactly how to reach our children.

Aside from psychological effects caused by marketing, children are facing other issues as well. Unhealthy eating habits and obesity are now more common in children than ever. Researchers at the Center for Science in the public Interest, CSPI, authors of Guidelines for Responsible Food Marketing to Children found that in the last 20 years, the rates of obesity have doubled in children and tripled in teens. (1) The increase is specifically rapid in the 1980s and 1990s. The graph (next page) shows the dramatic rise in child and adolescent obesity from a median 5% in the 1960s to an alarming 17% at the end of the 1990s. It also does not take into account another 40% of children that are overweight. It is evident that there is a positive correlation between food marketing and escalating rates of unhealthy weight in children.

(CSPI 5)

Children’s diets consist of high counts of calories, trans fats, refined sugar and not enough fruit, vegetable, whole grain, and calcium. Guidelines expresses the growing concerns over increasing risks of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, and other serious and costly diseases. (1) Many children experience “adult” adverse health effects like high blood pressure, elevated blood cholesterol levels, among other warning sign for heart disease. “Type 2 diabetes can no longer be called ‘adult onset’ diabetes because of rising rates in children.” (CSPI 2) Children’s food choices are admittedly affected by many factors; food marketing, however, plays a key role.

McDonald’s, by strategically using the clown Ronald McDonald, incurred great success in developing their child customer base and brand loyalty. Ray Kroc, the man behind the McDonald’s empire, understood that by creating the character and his playground, children would cultivate positive feelings and emotions toward the company. (Spurlock 78) The value in marketing McDonald’s as a caring, kid-friendly place reflects in the company’s dominant market share and Ronald McDonald as the number 2 advertising icon of the 20th century. (Spurlock 79)

Consumer Development

The key goal of a company trying to market their product is to understand how the child develops as a consumer. Psychological knowledge is therefore used to gain an insight into how children learn to shop and then used to develop programs based on that knowledge. Professor James McNeal developed a five-stage model of how children shop by visiting supermarkets:

Stage I: Observing Children begin making sensory contact with the marketplace and begin forming mental images of marketplace objects and symbols as early as 2 months old. At that age, only sights and sounds are being processed. However, by 12 to 15 months, most children can begin to recall some of these items. This stage ends when children understand that a visit to the market may produce rewards beyond the stimulation cause by the environment.

Stage II: Making Requests At this stage (median age is two years), children being requesting items in the store from their parents. They use pointing and gesturing as well as statements to indicate that they want an item. Throughout most of this stage, children make requests only when the item is physically present, as they do not yet carry mental images of the products in their minds. In the latter months of stage II, they begin to make requests for items at home, particularly when they are seen on television.

Stage III: Making Selections Actually getting an item off the shelf without assistance is the first act of an independent consumer (median age is three and a half years). At its simplest level, a child’s desire is triggered by an item in this or her immediate presence and this item is selected. Soon, however, children begin to remember the store location of desirable items, and they are allowed to go to those areas independently or to lead the parent there.

Stage IV: Making Assisted Purchases This is the stage where the child is allowed to select and pay for items with their own money. They are now primary consumers and the medium age is five and a half years.

Stage V: Making Independent Purchases At the medium of eight years old, the child has a fairly sophisticated understanding of value as well as the ability to visit a store, or a section of a store, safely without a parent. (Hawkins, Mothersbaugh, Best 218-219)

These patterns are vital to companies when they shelf their products at supermarkets. While walking down the cereal isle, for example, it is very evident that there is a reason why cereals that are dramatically high in sugar are positioned at a child’s eye level. Other examples would include child-sized shopping carts and kids’ clubs.

Marketing and Media

Although marketing has reached all types of media: newspapers, billboards, posters, school bulletin boards, internet, and most recently - mobile phones, television still reigns as most effective. “Television advertising makes up about 70% of the total amount spent on advertising to children.” (Beder 4) Beder states that by the time most children begin school, they will have already watched over 5000 hours of television (3) and will be exposed to 40,000 ads per year, up from 20,000 in the 1970s (Hawkins, Mothersbaugh, Best 716) In fact, they will spend more time watching television than being in class during their entire schooling. Most children have television sets in their rooms, which means that parents are not able to control what their children are watching as much as they used to. Companies who are taking strategic advantage of the changing family trends have developed several ways to use that knowledge. Many commercials focus on toys modeled after show characters. Very often, cartoon characters would turn into movies and be followed by merchandising into hundreds of products. “Disney stores promote the consumer products which promote the [theme] parks which promote the television shows. The television shows promote the company.” (Beder 4) Advertisers also use the affection that children feel for their favorite cartoon characters by placing advertisements during breaks of those programs about the characters, therefore distorting distinction between programming and advertising.

Internet marketing to children has also reached new heights in the last few years. It is estimated that close to 4 million children are using the internet world wide and this figure is predicted to increase radically in the near future. (Beder 4) Children as young as four are being targeted by advertisers and the interaction is usually not mediated by parents or teachers. “These advertisers elicit personal information from the children by getting them to fill out surveys before they can play and offering prizes such as T-shirts for filling in ‘lengthy profiles that ask for purchasing behavior, preferences and information on other family members’” (Beder 4) Children at that age do not have an understanding of what is being asked of them and are easily manipulated by fictional characters that are created to interact with the children, because they are enticed by the prizes. Wal-Mart has taken interactive “spokes-character” to a new level when they introduced its toy wish list on its Web site:

The site,, features two elves who nudge kids to select toys by clicking on the word YES when a toy appears on the screen. Applause is played when YES is selected. But it’s silent if NO is selected. “If you show us what you want on your wish list, we’ll send it straight off to your parents,” promises one elf. (Horovitz 2)

Horovitz explains that this type of internet marketing helps create a culture of nagging that parents are finding more and more difficult to deal with. (2) I had the pleasure of viewing this page and found myself playing along for longer than I expected. I was completely drawn in by the wonderful cyber environment. One can only imagine what this fun, colorful, interactive page is like for a youngster.


There are many questions regarding the ability of children to understand the purpose of marketing and not be deceived or manipulated by it. Beder argues that according to experts, children don’t understand persuasive intent until they are at least eight or nine years old. (5) It is at that age children begin to be able to fully engage in analytical reasoning required to completely comprehend ads and commercials. Moreover, companies rely on psychological knowledge to help them understand their target consumer and pursue them more effectively. Several psychologists are “outraged that psychologists and others are revealing such tidbits as why 3- to 7-year-olds gravitate toward toys that transform themselves into something else and why 8- to 12-year-olds love to collect things.” (Clay 2) Eliciting such information presents a bigger risk to the children, because it is harder for parents to hide their children from the marketing giants -they know more about their children than the parents themselves. This makes the parents feel that they can no longer control what their children are watching and learning. Children at a young age are very sensitive to external influences and when the parents teach their kids to make the right choices, by means of informing and modeling, they are overshadowed by the massive advertisements outside of their homes, in schools, and even mobile phones. Around puberty, in their early teens, children face more obstacles in their personal lives that are greatly affected by marketing. This is the time when children are forming their own identities and they are “highly vulnerable to pressure to conform to group standards and more”. (Beder 5) Teenage years are filled with insecurities and desire to “fit in”. Advertising uses that to manipulate confused teens by constantly promoting the message of seeking happiness through consumption.


Although marketing to children is facing more controversy over ethical issues these days, it is clear that capitalism will prevail and products will continue to be made for children to satisfy companies’ goals. Parents, however, have differentiated between appropriate and inappropriate marketing methods. According to the research report conducted by the Business in the Community program, appropriate methods are determined by a number of factors, such as: parental control, allowing the children to make choices, are un-intrusive, possess altruistic dimensions, educational, and are aware of method. Inappropriate methods include such factors as: lack of parental control, no choice in receiving, intrusive, tightly targeted, unregulated content, and are unaware of method. (4) Mobile phones and SMS messaging, internet pop-ups, e-mail, drinks and snack machines in schools, and children presenters are increasingly inappropriate. The research report provides guidelines to responsible marketing to children and includes do’s and don’ts. The do’s are defined as the following : be interesting, be informative, provide educational value, advocate good conduct, promote healthy habits, use language children understand, clearly label price and contents, and involve parents in the process. On the contrary, the don’ts include but are not limited to: advertise constantly, be misleading, make false promises, encourage bad habits, rely on tightly targeted media, exploit children’s vulnerability, target adult products as children. (5)

CSPI also offers guidelines in promoting healthier eating habits in children. CSPI offers marketing techniques that companies should abide by. Specifically, the Center advises to not advertise nutritionally poor choices during television shows with an audience under the age of 12, to not use product or brand placement for low-nutrition foods in media aimed at children, such as movies, television shows, video games, websites, books, and textbooks. (5)

In a world of colossal consumerism, our children are being openly manipulated and grow up never being satisfied with what they have. Clearly, a lot of children learn certain behaviors by modeling their parents, but it is a vicious cycle that needs to be stopped. It is alarming to witness a child whose imagination is bigger than him to state that their future will be based around money. Marketing plays a significant role in the day to day life of a child, altering their values, sense of well-being, health and integrity. There is nothing ethical about clouding a child’s mind and adversely affecting their cognitive processes and emotional health. For all the reasons stated in this paper and more, marketing should be significantly restricted to children and banned completely to younger children. It is hard enough to grow up in today’s world, trying desperately to find one’s niche in life. By promoting an addiction to materialism to young children incapable of making conscious choices is wrong on many levels. With any luck, however, more and more parents will take a solid stance and work together against marketing to their children and one day children will want to be teachers, race car drivers and teachers once again.

Works Cited

Beder, Sharon. “Marketing to Children”. A Community View: Caring for Children in the Media Age.Ed. John Squires and Tracy Newlands. Sydney: New College Institute for Values Research, 1998. 101-111

Business in the Community. Responsible Marketing to Children:Exploring The Impact on Adults’ Attitudes and Behavior. Nov.2001

Center for Science in the Public Interest. Guidelines for Responsible Food Marketing to Children. Washington, D.C. Jan. 2005. 20 Oct. 2006

Clay, Rebecca A. “Advertising to Children: Is it Ethical”? Monitor on Psychology 31.8 Sept. 2000. 21 Oct. 2006

Hawkins, Del I., Mothersbaugh, David L., and Best, Roger J. Consumer Behavior: Building Marketing Strategy. New York: McGraw Hill/Irwin, 2007

Horovitz, Bruce. “6 Strategies Used to Get Kids to Want Stuff Bad.” The Ithaca Journal 23 Nov. 2006. 23 Nov. 2006.

Spurlock, Morgan. Don’t Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America. New York: Penguin Group, 2005

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