How to inoculate your children against advertising

I have a confession to make: I like commercials. Even though they can be boring, insulting, and just plain bothersome, on some level they intrigue me. I often wonder why certain ads fail miserably while others succeed in catapulting a brand to the forefront of store shelves. I like commercials because I enjoy guessing which will sink the product and which marketing genius will get a promotion. But what I hadn't considered until I had children was how much power commercials seem to have over us.

Out of the Mouth of Babes

What changed my perception was a routine shopping trip a few years ago with my then four-year-old boys. As I paused my shopping cart in front of the cleaning supplies, Andy said, “Mom, aren't we going to buy some Clorox?” I stared in surprise at my child because, although he was pointing straight at the Clorox, I knew he wasn't able to read.

I puzzled over the bleach incident for some time because not only were the boys unable to read, but I didn't generally buy bleach. Eventually, my husband and I realized that commercials were to blame. While I had been dismissing commercial-watching as a mildly amusing pastime, marketers were subtly invading my home and impressing their values on my captivated and trusting children.

Shortly after we saw how easily we had been replaced as the value-shapers in our home, we also began to notice just how much allure commercials held for our children. And as soon as we began to hear choruses of, “Can we buy this?” and “We need to have that!” from the lips of our twins, we realized we needed to act.

If You Want to Defeat Your Enemy, Sing His Song

Our first option was simply to turn the television off, but since our kids were only watching one or two shows per week in addition to a nightly game show we watched as a family, it was hard to believe they were watching too much. Also, if the commercials during those short hours were having this much effect, we had to consider what growing up in our media-saturated culture would do to them if they weren't properly armed.

What we decided to do was slightly unconventional, but it made sense to us. We inoculated our boys using a principle I had learned in a college communications course. Little by little, we taught them about basic economics and simple marketing techniques used by companies to encourage people to part with their hard-earned money. The theory was that if they could recognize the tactics companies used to market a product to people, then our children would become resistant to the claims presented in commercials and slowly learn to be discerning about their validity.

We didn't sit the boys down for long lectures; rather, every time we noticed that a commercial or a print ad caught their attention, we asked them if they thought the product really did what the commercial claimed. This introduced the idea that sometimes people say things that aren't true and that it was okay for them to question what they saw and heard. It also taught the boys that what they think is important and valuable.

At the same time, we explained to them how companies need money to pay their workers and themselves, and how those companies try to convince others to buy their products in order to make money. Slowly, we began to see a change in their behavior.

Raising Savvy Consumers

We knew our approach was working when, only a few months later, the boys asked me which paper towels we used. Soon after I answered them, I heard the sounds of running water and giggling coming from the downstairs bathroom. When I went to investigate, I saw Andy and Matt busily soaking paper towels and loading them with various toys. The explanation? They were testing the assertion that the towels were so strong they could carry heavy loads even when wet. The twins were so pleased the claims were true that Matt insisted we use nothing but this particular brand of towel in the future.

Eventually, the lessons of trusting your own judgment, testing the claims of others, and discovering true value began to have an effect on our kids' everyday lives. Instead of whining for toys they saw in a magazine, Andy and Matt would show me the ad and ask if I thought the toy lived up to its claims, whether I thought it was a good price or not, and how long I thought it would last. They began to check the piece count on building sets before they spent their birthday money on them, and they would ask store clerks for more information before making purchases.

Recently, a mattress commercial came on. We adults filtered out the woman falling sound asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow until Andy matter-of-factly piped up, “It doesn't work. I tried it.” Smiling at the picture of my son trying to fall instantly asleep, I realized that while the mattress test hadn't worked, the inoculation had.

Ready For Anything

By introducing just a little bit of the marketing germ, we gave Andy and Matt a tool for wading through the thousands of ads that will clamor for their attention as they grow up in our consumer-driven society. Eventually, they will be able to use this process to decide if a product falls in line with their own values. For now, I am proud to hear my children constantly question the broad claims made by marketers, and I am pleased that we have been able to pass on to them our values of critical thinking and careful consideration.

Photo by Aaronyx.

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Welmoed
Welmoed
12 years ago

When I was growing up, my mother “inoculated” us against advertising with a very simple line: “If the product were that good, they wouldn’t have to advertise it. People would just buy it.” I used this same line on my kids, who now have a healthy level of skepticism and cynicism with regards to advertising. They love ferreting the “weasel words” in ads.
I mean, when’s the last time you saw an ad for Number 2 pencils? Cauliflower?

Becky@FamilyandFinances
12 years ago

This was a great article. My first instinct would also be to just turn off the tv. I can see how this method would definitely be better for children in the long run.
Thanks!

COD
COD
12 years ago

Ridiculing commercials is a family sport in our household. Although frequently, my son will keep his iPod or a book with him and tune out for 90 seconds during the commercials.

jessica
jessica
12 years ago

That is a great idea! i will definitely be using it on my kids when they are older.

Julie
Julie
12 years ago

That’s fantastic. I love the image of your boys testing out paper towels over the bathroom sink.

angie
angie
12 years ago

Great article. I do want to be mostly tv-free when my son is old enough to know better, but it’s not like he’ll never be exposed to television/media.

Kellie
Kellie
12 years ago

wow, what a great way of dealing with that inevitable problem! it’s great that your boys aren’t mindless consumers, not because you’re super-sheltering them, but because you’ve taught them to think intelligently and critically.

HollyP
HollyP
12 years ago

I agree, a wonderful article. I have successfully used a similar method for innoculating my 7 yo against advertising. We watch the commercials and try to guess what the advertisers are trying to make you feel, and whether the product will actually make you feel that way. I’m going to try the testing method with my 5 yo, who has not yet been swayed.

LK
LK
12 years ago

Makes sense – how many times have you seen a youngster pay no attention to the tv show, but become riveted for the 2-minute-span of the commercials? I love the author’s idea, and will have to remember it for when I have kids of my own 🙂

Mike
Mike
12 years ago

Aside from asking them ‘do you think this product actually does that?’, what other particular questions did you find most effective with the kids? Basically, what are the best questions to ask them while viewing various types of commercials?

Alya
Alya
12 years ago

This is a great article. It did bother me quite abit to watch commercials with my children as if I get affected by it…what more my kids! Now with your tip, I know what to do with them.

Debi
Debi
12 years ago

I’d say some adults would benefit from inoculation as well 🙂

I’ve always been a commercial-geek: my mom says that as a kid I’d ignore the programs and sit down to watch the ads. It’s fascinating to see all the ways advertisers try to rope you in to what they’re selling.

Becoming an educated consumer is crucial for our kids! Great post!

corey
corey
12 years ago

Until my son was five we only let him watch PBS and shows on demand or on DVD. Once he started watching shows with comercials targeting his demographic we had to explain that they were in a way trying to trick you into thinking the product was better than it really was. His five year old logic led him to believe that was the same as lying. A child once asked someone I knew how she would know what to buy if she muted the tv during comercials. When I was younger my grandparents did the same thing. At the… Read more »

Jason
Jason
12 years ago

When my children were very young, my wife and I decided to severley limit their exposure to television. Our thinking was that we needed to insulate them from the philosophies and values pushed by Hollywood. Years later, I realized that the 5 minutes between the programs were the most dangerous. When I think how the marketers, advertisers & credit companies manipulate us in order to get our money (past, present & future), it’s difficult to not be angry. I now realize what the disease that is ruining America is called: “Consumerism”. We would give our children a tremendous gift to… Read more »

Donna
Donna
12 years ago

It’s funny–I’ll never forget the day my then 3 year old son said “I love McDonald’s French fries!”. My husband and I were puzzled, as he’s never even been in a McDonald’s let alone had any of their food. We figured out that he must have seen a commercial or ad at some point! Scary how kids absorb this stuff, isn’t it?

Kevin @ Change Your Tree
Kevin @ Change Your Tree
12 years ago

I really enjoyed this article and I think it’s a very important topic.

Every minute of every day someone is trying to separate us from our money. Teaching children at a young age to avoid these traps will serve them well in adulthood.

Dennis
Dennis
12 years ago

Being as my career is advertising, I don’t want you guys turn your kids against advertising all together. I do need to make sure I have a job. But seriously, good post. Its important that kids be smart consumers.

Dave
Dave
12 years ago

Wow, very inspiring! Good for you to effectively fight against the big advertising companies.

Nicole
Nicole
12 years ago

As an adv. degree graduate, as well having worked in the marketing industry, I know the hours and labor slaved over researching and strategizing the best manipulations in which to speak to the customer.

it works because it’s meant too. It speaks to you because it’s designed to.

Get a TiVo and read this article!

But you should also consider a class and educating yourself how marketing strategy works. Once you understand the science of it, it no longer works.

Reveal the magician’s secret to your children as they grow and their immunity to it will strengthen.

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

It’s making me shake my head that the ads I’m seeing on this article are scammy ads targeted at adults. Ugh. I’m blocking the ones I can (though my block list is full), but I’m trusting that this article (and web site) has inoculated you against “get rich quick” schemes. 🙂

AC
AC
12 years ago

great article… i have children on my own… my strategy has been not to let them watch TV… but this would work out better for us…

dickey45
dickey45
12 years ago

Once my son learned how to use a DVR/PVR/Tivo, he just records his shows and skips the commercials. I asked him the other day if he watches commercials: no, but he will watch wii commercials. Funny, he already owns one (which he had to save a year to purchase).

Since he has been skipping commercials, his “needs” have dramatically declined.

But now they have a new way of getting around that. Notice how they have cartoons on the internet? Tunami Jetstream streams the content complete with embedded advertising that you can’t skip over. Oh those smart ones!

Pilar
Pilar
12 years ago

Thanks for sharing this inoculation method for children. I will definitely use this with my kids.

escapee
escapee
12 years ago

a great journal article on this subject that everyone should read: http://www.ijbnpa.org/content/1/1/3/ While I agree with this article in theory, I still will not expose my family to much advertising simply because it’s human nature to want what you see advertised. I understand the concept of teaching kids about ads and how people are trying to sell stuff to them, and it is important that parents do this. However, even if young kids do understand this, they are still going to want what they see. Maybe *limited* exposure to ads (and “innoculation”) is the way to go, increasing exposure incrementally… Read more »

Dick C. Flatline
Dick C. Flatline
12 years ago

Oh, the heresy! Teaching children to REASON! Your thought-crimes against MegaCorpCabalGov have been datamined.

B
B
12 years ago

I remember when I was a little kid and I first learned about the piece count on building blocks I’d go for those with more pieces than the “cooler” ones.

I have no idea how I ever became self-innocuated. My mother to this day is terrible with her money and giving in to consumption.

Tosajen
Tosajen
12 years ago

I’ve been fighting this battle since the kids (4 and 6) were born. I agree that restricting the kids to videos and public television helps a lot, but McD’s is a sponsor of Sesame Street, so some commercials sneak in there, no matter what, and if not there, at a friend’s house, etc. My mantra to the kids is “Advertising is a game: if they make you want something you didn’t want before and you buy it, then they win.” I haven’t pointed out that a lot of claims are spun and exaggerated, but they’re getting sophisticated enough to start… Read more »

jedipunk
jedipunk
12 years ago

Between Netflix-ing out TV shows and recording them on the DVR/PVR, we don’t know hwat a commercial is anymore.

Scott
Scott
12 years ago

What a great post! I had a similar incident, many years ago, with my oldest daughter. She had barely learned to say mommy and daddy yet when we drove by a store she pointed from her car seat and exclaimed “Two Guys” mommy, “Two Guys” daddy. It was the name of a store that advertised very heavily on TV in San Diego where we lived. It was funny then but, in retrospect, I did not realize it was more alarming than funny.

WNYGuy
WNYGuy
12 years ago

…I have to confess something. My wife is a bit gullible and I take the exact tact you describe above with your kids when we watch commericals together. If I didn’t, I can’t tell you how many products we’d have that we don’t need.

Great read!

Dave Greiman
Dave Greiman
12 years ago

You have my vote for parents of the year. Hats off to educating your children to become independent someday.

Dean
Dean
12 years ago

I was getting ready to leave the house the other day while my girlfriend’s son was watching tv. He’s 10. There was a commercial for student loans that was entirely sensational – “You could have up to $750 by the end of the week…” and so on. And right in the middle of the fast-talking sales spiel, in a particularly cynical tone, her son says, “Or you could just go get a job…”

I nearly died!

–Dean

tom termini
tom termini
12 years ago

I have a reasonably 90% certain solution that I’ve implemented for my kids – a DVR. Specifically, I use my ReplayTV to record any show or movie on TV. My kids ONLY watch recorded shows — and the ‘skip commercial’ works almost all the time.

Bonus – you control what is available, and they can watch a show whenever (not just when broadcast). And they can pause for dinner, pee break, etc.

tom
tom
12 years ago

this is great advice! It truly works. I’ve done the same thing with my daughter since she was 3. always asking “do you think it’s really as cool as it looks? never disagreeing with her when she said “yes” just saying “hmmm–I wonder”. when she was particularly excited about some per-inquiry piece of crap (moon sand for example), we’d actually buy it to demonstrate the deceptive nature of the ads then when the ad came on again we’d gently, playfully and humorously remind her how disappointed we were that the product wasn’t as cool as we thought it was. We… Read more »

Cara
Cara
12 years ago

I expect commercials will be replaced more and more by product placement, which already turns up everywhere and is harder to inoculate against, I think. When no product claims are being made outright, but your child’s favorite singer is drinking Sprite during that interview, or her favorite action movie features Doritos…remember Reese’s Pieces and ET? 🙂 As for those internet ads, just download Ad Block Plus for free, which blocks all internet ads. I’ve been using it for months and I love it. (I don’t work for them and get no fee for saying that! This is not blog comment… Read more »

Kate
Kate
12 years ago

Brillient post and so sensible, i wish more people would do this for their kids, it frightens me to think how much children can be affected by advertising, this certainly wn’t help them be frugal grown ups.

marc
marc
12 years ago

those boys are lucky to have such good parents

Oculata Certitudine
Oculata Certitudine
12 years ago

We inoculated our 1 year-old against advertising by simply not having a television set at home. Not only do we save about $100/month on cable (which goes right into her college fund), we will save in the long run by her not being programmed to consume!

Stephen
Stephen
12 years ago

Good luck with that “inoculation”, it won’t work. You don’t appreciate the power of marketing and advertising to push the buttons of ‘consumers’. Everyone thinks they’re immune, but look at the world around you, look at the stuff you buy and the way you behave. Advertisments only appear stupid when they’re not aimed at you, when they are aimed at you they simply become informational. What I find incredibly depressing about advertising is the level at which they’re aimed. Those stupid shallow characters actually appeal to the market the advertiser is trying reach. This is most of the world and… Read more »

Dana
Dana
12 years ago

“we had to consider what growing up in our media-saturated culture would do to them if they weren’t properly armed”
I totally agree with you on this. The natural instinct of many parents is to simply shut off the TV, but in the long run I think you solution is much more effective. While I completely agree with limiting TV watching time, parents have to remember that they can’t shield their children from the world forever.

vje
vje
12 years ago

Great article! I had been thinking lately on how to explain to my 8 year old how commercials ‘work’. Now I have great tips -thanks so much!!

April
April
12 years ago

Fantastic article.

Rebecca
Rebecca
12 years ago

I was having a similar problem in my house this past Christmas with toy commercials. To get across the point that the kids were all actors (remember the old Free To Be You and Me housework bit with Carol Channing?). I offered my 7 year old son a dollar if he could spend one minute making me think that a plain drinking glass was the most fun and amazing thing in the world. He did it, we all laughed a lot, and now he really notices if a commercial is using the hard sell.

Me
Me
12 years ago

Well, yes, it’s called education. I wasn’t aware that it’s such an unknown thing in the US…

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Folks, there may be a severe lag before your comments appear. They are not lost. Because this page is receiving heavy traffic — and because it appears that traffic may increase significantly — I’m serving a “static page”. Your comments are being received, but they won’t be posted until traffic returns to normal.

Nikchick
Nikchick
12 years ago

I loved this article. This is the same tactic I used with my own daughter, now 12, and it’s been really great to see her taking a critical eye to advertisements she sees. The lessons were reinforced when she was allowed to spend her own money on something she “really wanted” only to be disappointed that it didn’t live up to its billing once she got it. [side rant] Those Scholastic “book” forms they send home with kids in elementary school make me really mad because there’s so much JUNK in them! “Spy kits” and books that come with toys.… Read more »

sam
sam
12 years ago

Ridiculous. You can’t inoculate your kids against advertising from within the system. Educate them some, yes, but not prevent it. 99% of what is being sold to you on TV doesn’t occur during the commercials.

Ask Brent
Ask Brent
12 years ago

That’s a very creative way to educate your children to understand the way marketing works. I have a two year old, and I’m amazed at what he picks up from TV. Of course, McDonald’s would be the expert at marketing to children…

Amby
Amby
12 years ago

Hmm. It almost sounds like I would have to buy us a TV because we need to educate our kid about advertisements. Weird.

no name
no name
12 years ago

May I just add:

If you buy a product that is heavily advertised, you’ll also be paying for the advertisements.

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