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The Impact of Advertising on Children

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Marketing
Wordcount: 2870 words Published: 1st Jun 2017

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This report supports the idea that there are different forms of unethical issues in businesses, with advertising being a center of debate on questions of ethics. Thus, this paper aims to give its focus on unethical issues in marketing specifically the impacts of advertising on children. It identifies the harmful effects of fast food and its advertising on American children between the years 1990 and 2000, so that parents may know what they need to protect their children from. The report starts with a backgrounder on advertising and its relationship with children and then identifies the two major types of impacts they might have on children. The first is the series of potential health problems from consumption of unhealthy foods as promoted by fast food advertising. Another type of impact is the possible psychological issues that might develop, seriously affecting a child’s character and well-being. Finally, the report provides some recommendations for parents in order to protect their children from the detrimental effects of advertising.

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Ethics plays a significant role in society. It determines the right and wrong ways to conduct oneself in all areas of life (Ladd, 1902) and it bears special significance in the conduct of business. But while those standards exist, there remain several unethical practices within business organizations that affect societies and the general public in varying ways. These activities may have harmful effects on the whole of society or parts of it. For example, marketing is a basic strategy employed by modern organizations; but one of its tools, which is called advertising, may cause numerous negative effects on some segments of society. Advertising has become the official channel for companies to promote their products and services, and is one of the most integral factors for the success of any company (Kay, 1995).

One of the most basic advertising strategies is to target a specific group of consumers. In recent times, advertisers discovered the importance of targeting children as a market which resulted in an increasing number of ads directed at them. In fact, Friedman and Goetzl (2001) reports that “Companies spent about $800 million last year advertising on network, syndication, cable and local shows targeting kids aged 2 to 14.”

The purpose of this report is to analyze the impact of fast food ads on children in the United States between 1990 and 2000 to help parents protect their children from their negative effects. The first section in this report will include a discussion of advertising in general with a focus on its definition and recent position in society. Then, the second section will illustrate the relationship between advertising and children. The third section, meanwhile, will observe the impacts of advertising on children and will provide some examples that demonstrate these effects. Finally, the paper will deliver its conclusion and several recommendations.


People have different views on advertisements according to their preconceptions and educational backgrounds. While some of them assert that advertising has many advantages such as providing useful information about a product, others see advertising as causing detrimental effects on society, particularly on children. To properly understand advertising, it is important to be aware of what it means, what its types are and the extent and ways it influences society.


Before studying the impacts of advertising on children, it is very important to understand what advertising means. “Advertising is defined as any paid form of non personal communication about an organization, product, service, or idea by an identified sponsor” (Belch, & Belch, 2007). Being a paid form means that it is important for advertisements to reach consumers effectively to produce desired results. Non personal communication describes the various forms of media which is used to disseminate a company’s message to a large group of people. According to this definition, advertising is an informational channel between an organization’s goods or services and the consumers. Further, advertising has many types depending on the medium they use, the most popular of which are TV, radio, magazines, newspapers, websites and billboards. For this report, discussions will focus solely on advertising on television, commonly referred to as commercials.


Fast food is defined as “as the provision of a limited, standard menu with quick service, achieved through the rigorous application of scientific management principles” (Royle, & Towers, 2002). The earliest forms of fast food restaurants are lunch counters and drive-ins which served prepared foods such as hamburgers, hotdogs and milk shakes (“Restaurant,” 2009). Among the most famous fast food chains in America are Wendy’s, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC (“Most popular fast,” 2007).


According to the article TV Advertising and its effect on children (Shellaberger, 2003), “Advertising to children has long been a very successful way to build a solid consumer base that will win the minds of children in order to secure a lifetime of consumer purchasing”.

Consider that in 2000 there are over 60 million potential customers in the United States in their teenage years and below, advertisers were more than willing to target these markets. By way of example, industry estimates show that television advertisements for food and beverages targeted at children amount to $745 million a year (Darwin, 2009).

Marketing consultants Stan Rapp and Tom Collins also report that Americans watch over five thousand advertisements on TV daily (Gay 1992). Given the huge number of ads that air and are seen in the country, researchers who seek to understand the relationship between advertising and how children process them focus mainly on children’s capacity to separate ads from actual TV programs and how they understand and interpret these ads (Gunter, Oates, & Blades, 2005).


Companies are very aware that children are potential consumers of the future. Thus, they concentrate on children through direct advertising with the hopes that they will grow knowing their products and services. Companies also recognize that parents are often persuaded by children to buy the things they see advertised on television. They also see directing advertisements at children to be a viable strategy in developing brand loyalty (Seiter, 1995). Implied in this perception of advertisers towards children’s attitudes is their belief at the ability of children to wield influence on the consumption habits of their parents.

Seiter (1995) also explains that advertisers are motivated to target children with ads on key children’s programming blocks on television because this offers a relatively high response rate from this particular demographic. Another reason cited is that most children cannot read and are typically isolated in the household, rarely having access to other forms of advertising in media such as radio, newspapers and direct mail.

These factors shape the way advertisers target children. Market research indicates that within this young demographic exists subtle differences in preferences: Children aged 4 to 6 are attracted to fantasy elements and design that are gender specific. Those between 7 and 9 are drawn to humor and are known to enjoy having collectibles. At this point, they have developed ample reasoning skills meaning they can be persuaded using verbal cues. Meanwhile, children between the ages 9 and 11 prefer excitement, catchy music, special effects, humor and twists in their ads. (Bullen, & Kenway, 2001)

Consequently, advertisers form campaigns that appeal to these sensibilities. TV commercials targeted at children often emphasize a product’s taste, suggest their products as ‘must-haves’ among other children, and employ celebrities, sporting heroes and popular cartoon characters and mascots (Reed, 2008).


Many studies and reports support the idea that children are easily responsive and influenced TV watchers. Sutherland and Sylvester (2000) cite an experiment in which children afraid of dogs are shown 20 minutes of footage featuring a child interacting happily with a dog. In just four days, 67 percent of the children appeared willing to play with and pet the animals. This exemplifies the inherent capability among humans in general, and children in particular, to be influenced by a model in enacting certain behaviors.

Experts also believe that there is an inverse relationship between age and the credibility of advertising as shown in the table of appendix I. What is more, ads have a major impact on the purchasing decisions of children. Purchasing decisions of children at this age largely depends on what they see as exciting and interesting in commercials. A survey indicates the link between advertising and purchasing decisions of children. For example, 73.0% of children are taking the decision to purchase clothes based on clothing ads. More details can be found in appendix II.

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To be sure, advertising does not exactly force consumers to purchase anything; but they are created and presented in such ways that can capture attention and encourage purchase. While advertisers claim that they simply provide necessary information about their products to consumers, many people interpret these ads as highly persuasive and appealing to the emotions of people, especially children. A common advertising concept is to present the positive change that will occur if children get to have their products. This is but one strategy, and the concepts they run to target children as consumers cannot always be considered ethical. Also, most advertisers do not examine the possible repercussions of their ads on the health, psychology and growth of children exposed to them. Moreover, they very rarely apply principles that may help offset these negative effects. Consideration of the psychology and physical well-being of children is very important for their future but ads often promote just the opposite.


Unhealthy dietary habits, such as consumption of fast food, increase the risks for obesity and other health complications (Hellmich, 2007). Correspondingly, television and the fast food advertisements they air help form and influence the health habits of children, often through sheer repetition and persuasion. At worst, they may lead children to develop lifelong attitudes on health and lifestyle choices that may lead to serious health problems and early death.

Kath Dalmeny (2003) cites the Word Health Organization’s belief that marketing approaches can influence behavior among children and may pose consequences on public health. In Food Marketing: the Role of Advertising in Child Health, an essay for the Consumer Policy Review, she argues that food advertising promotes a negative image of what should form the basis of a child’s diet, and that they fail in properly educating children – and their parents – on healthy food choices.

The following examples will discuss the most serious consequences of advertising on health of children.


The 1995 National Nutrition Survey revealed the connection between children who do not eat healthy food as much as they consume non-nutritious foods such as soft drinks, fries and hamburgers and the amount of advertisements they watch per day (Australian Bureau of Statistics and Department of Health and Family Services, Commonwealth of Australia, 1999). In the US, the Committee on Food Marketing and the Diets of Children and Youth discovered a link between children’s short-term consumption and diet and the television advertisements they see. Even more substantial, the committee also reports that there are strong indications that television advertisements and the body fat of children aged 2 to 18 are connected (Darwin, 2009).

Food advertisements have several ways of gaining the attention and patronage of children: “Techniques used by television food advertisers include prizes, giveaways, animation, special effects, story vignettes, jingles, and popular personalities.” Most products being advertised lure children to buy foods with high caloric content and little nutritional value which may lead to deficiencies of some important nutrients such as vitamins and minerals available in fruits and vegetables which are very rarely advertised (Reed, 2008). In addition, most of these foods do not help in forming healthy and balanced appetites among children which results in various health and fitness problems.


Psychologists warn of the dangers of advertising on children’s behavior because they can influence children in many negative ways. Firstly, ads tend to focus on emotions of children such as happiness and how it relates to popularity. Consider how beer advertising often features a well-built, good-looking man and how he looks rewarded and relaxed after a long day’s work by drinking ice-cold beer. This is a template that is also applied to advertising that targets children.

Also, ads often insinuate that a product can give children unique talents, just as Nike would show top basketball players wearing their latest style of shoes while playing a winning game. Very often, children would buy into these aspirations and urge their parents to buy their desired products for them, often creating conflict with their parents and guardians (Gunter, Oates, & Blades, 2005). There are also concerns that exposure to television ads may lead children to develop highly consumerist attitudes that emphasize materialism, self-centeredness and even greed (Calvert, 2008). Furthermore, exposure to the lightning pace and special effects of ads may contribute to decrease attention spans and the ability to focus among children. Psychologists also note how ads may, in fact, contribute to the development of low self-esteem and inferiority complex of children who are exposed to them.


Experts believe that parents should learn to handle their children’s responses to television advertisements, and that their influence have considerable effect on how children learn to process their reactions towards ads. Calvert (2008) suggests parents can join their children while watching television, also called coviewing, this process involves watching TV along with their children without specifically commenting on any of its content. Another way is through active mediation, where they discuss with their children the content and intent of these advertisements. There is also restrictive mediation, which means limiting the kinds of TV content and the duration by which children are allowed to view them.

Wallace (2003) also recommends teaching children to manage their own media consumption, along with encouraging them to pursue other interests and hobbies that are more active and educational in nature.


Advertising is a major component of the current economic system. It employs different tactics to target specific groups such as children to market their products and services. Although advertising can be credited to helping people make their purchase decisions, there are serious and unavoidable consequences to exposing them to children who are not yet capable of filtering and processing the information they receive.

Ads affect children in a variety of forms, most notable of which are health and psychological effects. Unfortunately, there is no way of avoiding exposure of children to advertisements. But there are certain ways by which their negative effects may be limited and mitigated. According to Calvert (2008) parents can be proactive by limiting the hours spent by children watching television. Experts also recommend coaching children on how to properly deal with the messages they receive from advertising. Studies reveal that media education is useful to avoid the negative impacts of ads on children. Another way is for parents to foster an environment for their children that encourage self-esteem and promote hobbies that are educational and healthy.

While advertising remains a fixture of modern life, it is this writer’s belief that advertisers, educators, and above all, parents should take on the responsibility of guarding their sensibilities to avoid the negative impacts of advertising on their physical, mental and emotional well-being.

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