Advertising to Children and Parental Responses

Prof. Akshaya Vijayalakshmi

Children are spending increasing amounts of time watching screens (e.g., TV, computer, mobile), which also implies that they are being exposed to an increasing number of marketing communications. These messages come in various forms- some more blatant about their commercial intent than others. For example, a banner ad on a website or an ad played in-between overs of a televised cricket match is more easily identifiable as an advertisement. However, a brand recommended by your favourite celebrity on Instagram or a sponsored editorial in a newspaper is not just as easily recognizable as advertisements. Native advertisements are those ads where the source of the content cannot be easily determined. That is, viewers are likely to believe the content is from the publishers while it is actually a promotion from a brand- think of an Instagram post by an influencer. These ads tend to be more personalized, interactive and engaging, which further increases their appeal. For instance, advergames (ads designed as games) are interactive and engaging, while banner ads are more static and less attractive.

Young children with developing cognitive abilities and beliefs are likely to struggle with identifying ads. As children grow older and reach the teens, they are suggested to develop adult-like ad scepticism and knowledge of ad tactics. But at a younger age, twelve or below, children are unlikely to have the perspective-taking skills which enable them to understand the multiple purposes of an advertisement, including promoting, informing, persuading, and selling a product. Between the ages of 8 and 12, children are suggested to identify the commercial intent of an ad if they are provided with a cue for it. In the absence of such a cue, children tend to be vulnerable and susceptible to the persuasive effects of marketing campaigns. Interestingly when it comes to native ads, even adolescents and adults are suggested to be vulnerable to its effects. A study of 7,804 students from middle school through college found that more than 80% of them (irrespective of their education level) could not distinguish between sponsored content and an actual news story on a website.

Given this scenario, how can children become ad-literate?

Aside from the media, children are influenced by parents, peers, and the school. Parents transmit essential marketplace norms and behaviours to children through various processes. These processes include discussions about ads, co-surfing/co-viewing media, monitoring 'child's media usage, and rules for media use. Through these techniques, parents are likely to play a positive role in increasing 'children's advertising literacy. If parents can be effective in developing marketplace-literate consumers, then we need to identify ways by which parents can be enabled to do so.

In our study set in Iran and from another study in the US, we find that 'parents' beliefs about advertisements and their means to handle them are not homogeneous. Some parents are more concerned and aware of the negative impact of repeated exposure to advertisements. These parents also tend to be more involved in managing ads via discussions and rules/restrictions. Further, unsurprisingly, culture and country-specific media regulations shape much of parental beliefs about advertisements.

Investigating parental beliefs further, in another study, we find that parents who did not believe in their efficacy as parents were more likely to prefer regulation of media and advertisements. These parents tend to have greater faith in regulation. Moreover, such beliefs are likely to be rooted in parental use of media. That is, we find that parents who passively used social media placed the agency of change on others. These parents trusted the external environment or entities, such as government agencies, teachers, or businesses who manage media for curbing any negative influences their children might be exposed to. In general, passive users of social media did not engage with others or with the content on social media. These parents (passive users of media) who placed faith in collective action were also unlikely to have a critical view of the media or were not actively involved in the mediation of the negative effects of media.

On the other hand, we find that the active use of social media by parents led to them being significantly involved in their 'children's media/ad interactions. We find that intense use of social media increased intrapersonal empowerment. Intrapersonal empowerment is related to self-efficacy, perceived competence, and desire for control. Parents with high parental-efficacy are likely to believe that it is their responsibility (vs. external entities) to manage their 'children's media use.

So what does all this mean for advertisers and policymakers? A small but growing number of parents are aware of advertising tactics and do not approve of these tactics. Consequently, they are choosing to boycott brands or even switching from TV to ad-free media. Second, while parents have a significant impact on children, children too tend to have a critical impact on educating their parents about media use, ad formats, and media content. Some parents enjoy such educative interactions with their children. Since socialization is bi-directional, advertisers could consider using ad scenarios where parents and children engage with the pros and cons of a certain product or content, thus enabling parent-child conversations to make an informed decision. Durex India has a series of YouTube videos that show a father having a conversation on sex/sexuality-related topics with his son (YFilms 2016). These videos not only provide factual information for parents but also showcase ways in which parents could communicate sensitive information to their children. Finally, parents who have a less critical view of media tend to be not as tech-savvy as other parents. Policymakers could disseminate information on different kinds of ads and how to evaluate these ads critically. There could be workshops to improve parental media skills, which would increase their confidence in developing ad and market-literate consumers.

  1. Lin, Jenny, Akshaya Vijayalakshmi, and Russell N. Laczniak (2019), "Toward an Understanding of Parental Views and Actions on Social Media Influencers Targeted at Adolescents: The Roles of Parents' Social Media Use and Empowerment." Frontiers in Psychology, 10: 2664. (The first and second authors contributed equally).
  2. Vijayalakshmi, Akshaya, Russell N. Laczniak and Deanne Brocato (2019), "Understanding Parental Mediation of Violent Television Commercials," Journal of Consumer Marketing.
  3. Melika Kordrostami, Akshaya Vijayalakshmi and Russell N. Laczniak (2018), "Children's Media Consumption: Parental Concerns and Parental Mediation in Iran and the US," Journal of Marketing Management, 34(9-10), 819-840.
  4. Vijayalakshmi, Akshaya, Meng-Hsien Lin and Russell N. Laczniak (2018), "Managing Children's Internet Advertising Experiences: Parental Preferences for Regulation," Journal of Consumer Affairs, 52(3), 595-622.
  5. Vijayalakshmi, Akshaya (2015), "Violent Commercials: Children's Responses Andparental Mediation." Iowa State University.

About The Author

Prof. Akshaya Vijayalakshmi

Prof. Akshaya Vijayalakshmi

Iowa State University, Ames, USA Doctor of Philosophy, 2015