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.

More about...Shopping, Psychology

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There are 79 comments to "How to inoculate your children against advertising".

  1. Welmoed says 05 March 2008 at 06:01

    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?

  2. Becky@FamilyandFinances says 05 March 2008 at 06:16

    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.

  3. COD says 05 March 2008 at 06:18

    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.

  4. jessica says 05 March 2008 at 06:21

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

  5. Julie says 05 March 2008 at 06:28

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

  6. angie says 05 March 2008 at 06:35

    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.

  7. Kellie says 05 March 2008 at 06:42

    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.

  8. HollyP says 05 March 2008 at 06:46

    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.

  9. LK says 05 March 2008 at 06:56

    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 🙂

  10. Mike says 05 March 2008 at 07:00

    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?

  11. Alya says 05 March 2008 at 07:13

    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.

  12. Debi says 05 March 2008 at 07:15

    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!

  13. corey says 05 March 2008 at 07:30

    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 time it seemed so wierd.

  14. Jason says 05 March 2008 at 07:30

    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 innoculate them against this disease.

  15. Donna says 05 March 2008 at 07:31

    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?

  16. Kevin @ Change Your Tree says 05 March 2008 at 07:42

    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.

  17. Dennis says 05 March 2008 at 07:47

    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.

  18. Dave says 05 March 2008 at 07:48

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

  19. Nicole says 05 March 2008 at 07:55

    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.

  20. J.D. says 05 March 2008 at 08:00

    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. 🙂

  21. AC says 05 March 2008 at 08:03

    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…

  22. dickey45 says 05 March 2008 at 08:09

    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!

  23. Pilar says 05 March 2008 at 08:37

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

  24. escapee says 05 March 2008 at 09:06

    a great journal article on this subject that everyone should read:

    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 as they get older and can understand more of the mechanisms behind advertising.

  25. Dick C. Flatline says 05 March 2008 at 09:33

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

  26. B says 05 March 2008 at 09:34

    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.

  27. Tosajen says 05 March 2008 at 09:38

    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 in on that, too.

    A wise friend of mine suggested that the best way for kids to learn about advertising is to let them “fall for it” in a benign way — let them experience the disappointment of realizing that the plane they purchased with their own money doesn’t really fly like a jet, etc. People learn only so much from the stories of others.

  28. jedipunk says 05 March 2008 at 09:46

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

  29. Scott says 05 March 2008 at 10:23

    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.

  30. WNYGuy says 05 March 2008 at 12:20

    …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!

  31. Dave Greiman says 05 March 2008 at 12:40

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

  32. Dean says 05 March 2008 at 12:45

    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!


  33. tom termini says 05 March 2008 at 13:17

    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.

  34. tom says 05 March 2008 at 13:25

    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 have lots of fun laughing at ads now and rarely– if ever– do my wife and I get pestered to buy advertised junk. When we do we just ask our question and say “hmmm”

    the key is to have fun, focus on the lesson and learn together. The moon sand was worth the money in the lesson it taught my daughter about media influence

    Great article–great advice

  35. Cara says 05 March 2008 at 13:27

    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 product placement! 🙂 )

  36. Kate says 05 March 2008 at 14:00

    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.

  37. marc says 05 March 2008 at 14:07

    those boys are lucky to have such good parents

  38. Oculata Certitudine says 05 March 2008 at 14:20

    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!

  39. Stephen says 05 March 2008 at 14:38

    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 it’s very scary.

  40. Dana says 05 March 2008 at 15:47

    “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.

  41. vje says 05 March 2008 at 16:44

    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!!

  42. April says 05 March 2008 at 17:29

    Fantastic article.

  43. Rebecca says 05 March 2008 at 17:29

    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.

  44. Me says 05 March 2008 at 17:44

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

  45. J.D. says 05 March 2008 at 17:56

    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.

  46. Nikchick says 05 March 2008 at 19:43

    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. My daughter always wanted the flashy toys and not the simple books…and it came from *school* so why wasn’t I as excited as she was. Took a longer time to counter that than TV ads![end rant]

    Anyway, looking at my daughter now after 9 or 10 years of this attitude and she’s doing pretty well. She doesn’t think she needs a call phone or electronic gadgets, doesn’t beg for things at the store, has $500 in the bank and is generally showing all sorts of signs of having better sense than I did at her age.

  47. sam says 05 March 2008 at 20:32

    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.

  48. Ask Brent says 05 March 2008 at 20:43

    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…

  49. Amby says 05 March 2008 at 20:59

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

  50. no name says 06 March 2008 at 02:58

    May I just add:

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

  51. Jonnie says 06 March 2008 at 03:19

    Having worked for an ad agency, my children are very aware of strong sell pushed onto them but my eldest uses it to his advantage.
    Together, we put together a little ‘phone speech and he calls up companies and with his prepubescent voice and more balls than ever I had at his age coerces them into giving him free things.
    Major corporates fall over themselves to give stuff out to kids to get them hooked in for life. Sometimes, it’s just posters but other times it’s goody bags with decent stuff; the key is to ask for posters,promo stuff and other small things…but when they arrive the usually have other things thrown in. We have bagged free book bags,sports shoes,mobile phones, a guitar, toys, deodorant,sweets so far this year.

    I guess, one day we’ll be found out and put on a black list but ’till then we screw them out of money rather than the other way round.

  52. Lisa @ Corporate Babysitter says 06 March 2008 at 06:49

    This type of media education should be taught in our schools (as it is in Europe).

    I put some blame on the corporations for the advertsing the direct at kids. Not all parents teach their children to be skeptical.

  53. erin says 06 March 2008 at 10:44

    Lisa, this is a great idea! We’ll probably start talking to our daughter about this as her comprehension level grows.

    Just turning off the TV isn’t enough! We have a 19 month old who doesn’t watch much TV. What she does watch is largely DVD-based or Tivo’d shows without commercials. She does however love books. Grandma bought a couple of Dora books which she loves to look through and read with us (books are good, right?). When shopping at the store the other day, the Dora noodle soup was conveniently at cart height for her to fixate on as we strolled by.

    As you mention, we live in a marketing-rich society, you cannot shield your child from it, so education is the only effective route.

  54. Rivster says 06 March 2008 at 12:55

    After begging for Spaghettios based on the claim that they are “mmm…mmm…good!”, our then 6 year old son was furious to discover that “they lied! They are mmm…mmm…bad!” We asked him if he would have asked for them if the commercial said they were “mmm…mmm…bad” and you could just see the wheels turning in his head.

  55. Wendy says 06 March 2008 at 14:08

    We did pretty much the same thing with our kids. And one day our youngest jumped in front of us during a car commercial and yelled, “Don’t watch it Mommy, they’re trying to brainwash you.”

    And, when I was in sixth grade, learning about the various types of advertising was part of the curriculum (22 years ago in the US). To this day, I still think ‘Bandwagon ad’ to myself when I see one.

  56. Jenny says 06 March 2008 at 15:55

    or you could just ban tv and/or internet from your home.

  57. argus says 07 March 2008 at 00:19

    great tips. i was just wondering how to handle the commercial watching problem with my 2yr old twins and this is the perfect way. they too devote their full attention to commercial blocks while watching a show and it started to worry me, but not anymore 🙂

  58. Hamilkar says 07 March 2008 at 04:26

    It’s a great first step. But next they need to learn how to recognize advertiser claims irrelevant to the product. Like…you don’t actually need to carry stuff around in a wet paper towel and they don’t need to be that strong for their purpose. The advertiser has won that round, I’m afraid.

  59. Rare Hero says 07 March 2008 at 12:40

    Great article. If only more children grew up in this way…
    If I am ever charged with raising children I can proudly say I will use this tactic to counter the sometimes false claims of advertisements.

  60. Brea in Texas says 07 March 2008 at 12:46

    I love this tactic. It’s a lot of fun. And our kids don’t watch actual tv, either, no tivo or anything like that, but they still pick up on everything!! Five minutes at a grandparent’s house, or over at a friend’s, and they’re asking me if they can have some Arby’s. Then they ask me what exactly Arby’s is … it’s funny, in a sad, brain-washing kind of way. 🙂

    The advertising is everywhere in the real world, even if you don’t allow and tv or internet. And yes, all of us are going to be swayed for something at some point … some people more than others. The key is just starting to recognize advertising for what it is. I think it’s something you get better at over time …


  61. AmyL says 07 March 2008 at 13:58

    Lol. Totally remember the “bandwagon” lessons in middle school too.

    Hubby and I started inoculating our 4 boys a while back by talking to each other about commercials when we know the boys are listening. Usually it’s some mild sarcasm like “yeah right…that (insert product here) is reeeally going to (insert ridiculous benefit here).” I’ve noticed that the boys have gotten pretty critical about what the commercials claim. A few purchases of dollar store items with their own dollars has helped with the critical thinking too. Being able to buy lots of junk is great until you realize that it’s a lot of junk.

    We also editorialize tv shows and movies if something really unrealistic happens. We even tease sometimes if it looks like a main character is going to be in danger and say “well, looks like this show is over forever. So and so is gonna die”. Then they all groan and say “Mo-ommmm” The point isn’t to ruin their viewing experience, but to remind them that it’s all scripted in advance.

    Of course, this has come back to bite us in the behind a little because now it’s hard to watch anything on TV without 4 boys under the age of 10 chattering away and analyzing everything to pieces. I’m happy with that though. 🙂

  62. JanTink says 08 March 2008 at 16:27

    I started out young with my children too…whenever a commercial would come on, I’d say, “What are they trying to sell you?” It taught them that advertisers were not giving them information for their benefit, but were only interested in selling products.

  63. Chuck McKay says 08 March 2008 at 16:33

    When I was in Junior High I went to school with kids from a family that had no television. Occasionally, they’d visit one of us who did. What did they do? They sat in front of the tube and absorbed everything for as long as possible.

    I think it’s like the preacher’s kids drinking and smoking as soon as they go away to college. When you keep anything from your children, it acquires an abnormal attractiveness.

    Talking to kids about the content of ads is by far a superior idea. I commend you.

  64. Scott says 09 March 2008 at 07:50

    When I got married, I inherited a 7 year old step child who was plenty familiar with sitting in front of the TV. Every time we would shop, he’d tell me about how he loved this product or what the commercials said about his favorites. So, I started replying with any of the following:

    -Is that a need or a want?
    -Have you tried the other brand to see what you think?
    -Do you think the other brand names can do the same things? Why not?
    -How do you think they know that XYZ drink is better than the other ones?

    When he got a little older (12 or so)…
    -Is it fair for XYZ to say they are better if the other brand can do the same thing?
    -Is there a price difference?
    -If mom asks why we chose this XYZ over the other brand, can we tell her good reasons?

    Before anyone thinks I run torture camp, I should qualify that I am a teacher (9th grade economics).

    He’s 16 now and a great shopper. Often turning these questions back on me. Of course, my answer is “I’m paying for it.”

  65. jedmitchell says 10 March 2008 at 07:15

    I do like this method of inoculation — I’m not at child-bearing age yet, but it’s been a question on the back of my mind for a while. As it is a practical method of education though, this sort of technique leaves a disturbing hole in the defenses it creates — what about impractical ads? More and more ads are moving towards psychological and emotional sales points instead of practical or economic ones, by referencing associated ideas and shared cultural drives instead of value or quality. How do you prepare for an attack coming at a part of your mind even you have only limited access to? Advertisers are more rarely making the mistake of claiming things that can be verified.

  66. Shaping Youth says 10 March 2008 at 13:05

    Media literacy is a great ‘first step,’ particularly with wee ones, and yup, forbidden fruit turns rotten very fast if you go the other direction.

    There are some fabulous interactive sites to use as tools to ‘show and tell’ the deconstruction of advertising tricks, like this one I wrote about on Shaping Youth which we use in our sessions having kids design/name their own product/packaging, from pbskids:

    Another I like is Ad Decoder (not highly publicized, but from the CDC:)

    And at our nonprofit, Shaping Youth we go one step further and use ‘counter-marketing’ tactics (with the help of industry insiders skilled in persuasion) to shift motivations via ‘lift and reveal’ messaging when it veers into the harmful manipulation realm. (e.g. body image, junk food, objectification, behavioral norms, relational aggression/bullying, etc.)

    Here’s a little tip sheet we did for Common Sense Media’s resource section on talking to your kids about junk food (generic enough to apply universally)

    To me, the toughest thing to counter-market is ambient advertising/”brandwashing” as it literally turns up EVERYwhere…on the beach sand, skywriting, mall displays you name it.

    Oh, wait, second thought, maybe peer to peer viral ‘word of mouth’ marketing (the lunch table/schoolyard scene) is harder. Try turning that ‘off’—Send tips my way, we can always use ’em too! 🙂

    Amy Jussel
    Founder, Exec. Dir.

    p.s. Click on our “counter-marketing” category in the sidebar for more deconstruction tactics you can do at home, and share ones that work w/us too, ‘k?

  67. murray says 18 March 2008 at 14:04

    By the way, dont you find it slighty jarring that this post is sat next to an advert for Guiness, TurboTax and a dozen other pieces of crap. Wake up!

  68. Jonathan says 27 March 2008 at 14:23

    I think this was well-written and I like the inoculation analogy. I’m glad the post wasn’t approaching it from a simple pretend-ads-don’t-exist direction. It would be like making your kid live in a germ-free bubble, only to let it out as an adult with no protection.

    I don’t know if I my kids would be so clever at such a young age, though 😉

  69. Monkey Mama says 31 March 2008 at 06:19

    Great Post!!

    I thought this was going to be another “we don’t let our kids watch TV because commercials will ruin them” post.

    We generally take the same approach with our kids. We just openly discuss commercials/advertising. I don’t like parenting that shields kids from reality, but much prefer parenting that teaches them how to survive best in the real world. & this is a perfect example.

  70. kat says 27 April 2008 at 05:57

    We live on a Cul-de-sac in a very artsy community in Vermont. Recently some Jehovah’s witnesses showed up on our door-step preaching about the evils of T.V.. I know someone who immediately kicks these people off his property in a very rude fashion. Not I. I love the art of debate, which is why I think they always come back to our door even though they know full well we belong to another (very different) church. This time I had nothing to debate. “I agree” I said “which is why we don’t have one.” For the first time ever, the woman at my door seemed to come unglued for a (split)second. “Doesn’t anyone in this community have a television?!” she asked in a tone almost high pitched. Her change in pitch got the attention of my 7 year old who was on the floor painting a protest sign (impeach Bush)and he looked up. “She’s kind of a walking commercial herself isn’t she mommy?” he asked in that loud voice children do. I think all of our bases were covered that day.

  71. Scott says 27 April 2008 at 08:52

    Kat, what a great story about your boy. I wish I had raised my kids to have a mind for themselves like that. Unfortunately I saw my role to be “the parent” and make sure they were just cookie cutter molds like all the rest. It didn’t work.

    Your seven year old seems wise beyond his years and that undoubtedly has to do with the lack of TV and his need to then create his own image of the world around him and exercise his reasoning power. What a wonderful gift. He’ll never be a “sheeple”.

    Adbusters has a great video on their site this week showing how kids “tune out” when watching TV. The link is

    Adbusters Video

    I highly recommend viewing it.

  72. Andy says 03 July 2008 at 16:58

    I’ve tried teaching my children not to accept everything they’re told without questioning it. Now I have to argue with them every time I want them to do anything….!!! But, seriously, good article.

  73. Bobbie jane says 12 August 2008 at 22:58

    glad to read this and all the comments. i too am a “connesoir” of advertising, and having 8 year old twins myself, who never used to watch public tv untill they were 6 ( bad plan a). I have tried avoiding the ad’s altogether (bad plan b), while trying to teach them the ploys of marketing on my own (yeah, bad plan c). Now, they are 3rd graders who think they can’t live without lunchables, an ipod, and lego star wars 2 the original trilogy, even though i haven’t “exposed”them to all of that.
    —I wish i had been smarter sooner, that’s all I can say. but hopefully, prayerfully, my fellow parent’s are banding together to raise a generation of people who are not bound by the “consumerist” “”lifestyle””
    that has just got to stop, really, really, make it stop!!!

  74. La BellaDonna says 03 January 2009 at 08:47

    We grew up on the inside – my Dad was a copywriter, and he and my Mom had five little critics reviewing print and television ads: how well they were written, how good was the editing, how was the sound, how was the lighting – as well as How Is The Product. We regarded it as a particular kind of art form – still do; and the ads we’re most critical of are the ones which leave you wondering what the heck the product is that’s being sold.

    My personal peeve, of all products: Food “Products” which are sold as part of a “fun experience” – rather than something to eat or drink. It’s not an adventure, it’s a g.d. snack, and you’d be better off either seeking out a genuine activity or genuine food.

  75. Family Matters says 29 September 2009 at 01:07

    This is great!

    I loved the idea of teaching kids to examine the information presented to them. I am sure kids as young as 4 years old can develop critical thinking regarding TV.

    Kids are born with no filters. It is their parents’ duty to help them develop them.

    Great tip! I loved it.

    If anyone’s interested in more on this topic of watching TV, read the series “TV Diet”, starting from TV Diet (1): Too Much TV?

  76. Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth says 29 September 2009 at 12:18

    All, since this post is still getting pings (I was #72, the lengthy one on the need for media literacy!) I wanted to update you with a couple of new data points, since the FCC is currently addressing the very impt. kids covert mktg. tactic of PRODUCT PLACEMENT within media … We’re one of the consortium orgs dedicated to making DISCLOSURE key as the embedding is going much deeper into integrated levels of content (shows, sites, ownership, embedded into scripts/plotlines, etc.) More here:

    I’ll be posting Q&A on the effort soon, w/analysis for parents etc. Meanwhile I really like the Media Literacy Clearinghouse for hands-on info to teach kids about what they’re seeing & question in healthy manners from the onset! 🙂

  77. Foximus - Frugal Living Tips says 12 November 2009 at 20:47

    This is a wonderful idea! Educating your kids is important for money management as well as to arm them against being manipulated. Will keep this one in mind.

  78. Audiovore says 19 September 2010 at 15:44

    Hmm, well I guess I am stumbling upon this a bit late, but this made me think about my ignoring and immunity to ads.

    At first I thought it might have been inoculation through inundation, as I was ‘allowed’ to view limitless amounts of TV for as long as I can remember(my mother says I started trying to learn to read with the TV guide to see what was on). Anyway, upon further reflection I remember(vaguely of course) seeing toy ads and whatnot as a kid, but my desire for the products really didn’t have much to do with the ad as the actual toy, as I would want it just as much upon seeing it on the shelf with or without the ad.

    I don’t overtly remember any other product ads, nor being subtly brainwashed. The main example of this is that I liked Lucky Charms, but was perfectly happy with the Malt’o Meal version, as I could plainly see they were the same thing. I would however still refer to it as lucky charms, but I believe that has more to do with the more complex intricacies of branding and the sort of commonization that happed with Kleenex.

    This leads me to believe that my general immunity is more natural stemming from my generally higher IQ(and placement in gifted programs to match) than most others.

    But I guess this will make me more cautious/observant for the effect of ads should the day come that I ever have a child.

  79. Amy says 13 May 2013 at 07:15

    Next experiment: find out if there’s any correlation between how many toys a paper towel can carry wet and how well it mops up a spill. Are the boys being suckered into paying a premium for an unnecessary quality?

    Our TV only works as a video player, so our six year old has seen few ads, but simply pointing out to her that some of the”movies” she sees–the endless Blu-Ray, Disney product, etc. promotions you must forward through on your DVD–are trying to get us to buy something has had an effect.

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