How many times have you selected what you thought was a genuine search result, or followed an apparently harmless link in an article only to be confronted by an interstitial ad flashing that you’re visitor number 3,786 and may have just won a new iPhone? Not forgetting the suggested partner content – with tawdry headlines – often promoted at the bottom of many legitimate websites and linking to questionable websites. It’s difficult to avoid ads online, with text, display, and video ads appearing in everything from search results and youtube videos, to in mobile apps and games; without even considering influencers and how they might endorse certain products or services. And while not all are designed to trick you into clicking or tapping on the ad, there are still many that blur the line between marketing and genuine content. And if any of these still fool you occasionally, imagine how easy it is for your children to be misled.
The UKs telecoms regulator, Ofcom, has been reporting on media use and attitudes of parents and children since 2010. Over the years, the number of children aged 5 to 15 years who own a mobile phone or tablet has steadily grown, along with their use of a mobile device to watch TV programmes; with a preference for YouTube over other streaming services. More alarming though is the fact that only a quarter of these children are able to identify ads in Google search results, with only older children better at recognising that YouTube content creators and social media influencers are being paid by companies to endorse their products or brand.
Parents now have less control over what their children watch and are exposed to online, making it all the more important for parents to take a more active role in teaching their children to be able to identify advertising in the many forms it now takes, how to recognise false claims and negative concepts in advertising, and to ultimately be a more savvy consumer, regardless of age.
Teach Your Children About All Types of Advertising
As adults we aren’t immune to the influence of advertising, but we can be less aware of how much advertising we are exposed to. Take the time to draw up a list of all the types of advertising you can think of, from radio adverts, through to print adverts in newspapers and magazines – including classified ads – television advertising, and the many types of online adverts.
It is online advertising that you should be most concerned about, not only because this is the advertising your child would be most exposed to, but also because it comes in so many different forms and is not regulated like other forms of advertising. Google and popular social media platforms have some rules about what can be advertised and who can be targeted, but these aren’t free of loopholes, nor are they the only platforms for delivering online adverts. Mobile apps should also be an area of focus, first addressing standard in-app advertising such as banners and videos, and then covering both in-app purchases and push notifications, which are both forms of marketing we so easily forget about.
Help Your Children Identify the Techniques Used to Sell
When teaching your children about all the different types of advertising they might encounter, be sure to also explain how they can identify adverts, so that they also learn how to differentiate between genuine content and information and hard marketing. And part of this depends on being able to identify the different techniques used to sell products or services. Many involve manipulation, but use different techniques, such as:
- Bandwagon – the idea that everyone else is using whatever is being advertised and you’re missing out by not being part of the crowd. Think of it as marketing that induces fear-of-missing-out (FOMO).
- Fear or emotional appeal – encouraging people to act by either appealing to their personal emotions or by inducing fear. Frequently used by non-profits when asking for donations, or when advertising safety products or features.
- Problem/benefit – popular with infomercials, first present a problem some people might experience, and then demonstrate how the advertised product eliminates the problem or brings some relief.
- Testimonial or expert opinion – man-on-the-street endorsements for the product, essentially using real customers to tell how happy they are since using the product or service. Alternative approach is to have experts weigh in with their opinion; scientists, doctors, even chefs and teachers.
- Celebrity endorsement – related to influencers, but with more clout in many instances. And there isn’t even a need to have the celebrity specifically endorse the product, just having them appear in the advertisement can act as an endorsement.
There are many other techniques, and while some might be a little too complex for younger children to understand, it should be a topic you revisit as your children grow. Encourage them to also point out different selling techniques to you or to ask when they’re unsure of what technique is being used in an advertisement they come across.
Teach Your Children About Influencers
Before TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, brands had to rely on celebrity endorsements and product placement in movies and TV shows for a form of marketing that was a step up from traditional word-of-mouth. It’s a not-always-subtle way of planting a suggestion: if it’s good enough for them, I should maybe use it too. But now, thanks to social media, almost anyone can be an influencer and start endorsing products and brands in return for free gifts or payment. In the US, the FTC has published clear guidelines on the measures social media influencers need to have in place whenever they are promoting or endorsing a product or brand 2 . But this isn’t a requirement in all countries, and it also doesn’t guarantee that the audience will see or understand that it is an endorsement. But by teaching your children about influencers and endorsements, they won’t need to see #sponsored or #ad to know when someone they follow on social media is selling a product.
Explore the Buying Process With Your Children
Understanding and being able to discern wants and needs is an important skill to teach your children, but children – and advertisers – can be remarkably adept at framing a want as a need. So, it works better when combined with having your children involved in the buying process, which includes teaching them about budgets, saving, and other money-management skills. Once they are old enough to get a monthly allowance, they should have to use their allowance to make impulse, ad-driven purchases, especially when they are trying to convince you that a want is actually a need. Ask them open-ended questions about the item they want to buy, because the more they have to talk about it, the more they have to think about it, dampening the initial impulse.
Discuss Stereotyping and Unrealistic Portrayals in Ads
Finally, it is very important to discuss the darker side of advertising, where stereotypes are still frequently employed when promoting specific products or services, along with the use of traditional gender roles: women in advertisements about cooking and cleaning, while men feature in adverts about DIY or Utes. Not forgetting how many people in advertisements – and even many influencers – are slim, athletic, and seemingly perfect in every way. This, and all the other points above, should not be about vilifying all advertising, but rather about teaching your children about being able to make smart choices when responding to advertisements, and about distinguishing between the idealistic fantasy often portrayed in advertising and what is achievable or realistic. And as with the other points, how you discuss the issue and share teachable moments will depend on the age of your children but is also something that can be revisited multiple times as your children age, each time touching on more complex ideas.