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A Barrage of Half-Truths: Navigating the World of Advertising

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Mom, we all do it. We let the kids watch television while we accomplish some task, make a phone call, or get a shower. But in some circles I run in, “children and television” are two words that immediately bring a glare of judgment. I mean the two words in combination, not separately… just to be clear. There is no doubt that television effects children whether they watch hours a day or only a few hours a month. There have been countless studies done on the subject by universities and independent organizations.

Now can television be a positive for children too? Sure. For example, my kids love to watch Cyberchase on PBS. This show has a strong emphasis on math skill and I can tell that it has been as much about learning as it is entertainment for my young ones. But lately, I’ve been disturbed by the commercials that my kids have repeated nearly verbatim.

“Mom, did you know that [this toy] can fly 100 feet into the air?” You and I both know that toy is going nowhere near 100 feet in the air. If we even get it 20 feet in the air it’s sure to end up in a tree or on the roof.

“Mom, [that gadget] can hang on the wall in the bathroom and squeeze your toothpaste out for you!” Boy, that must save at least three seconds of your life. A real deal for just $25 plus shipping and handling.

“Mom, if you shop at [this store] you’ll save up to 70% this weekend.” I’ll save 100% by not going at all.

The advertisers are getting to them. And we’ve worked hard to be sure our kids watch very little television at all. In fact, 95% of what they do watch doesn’t have commercials at all. (Yeah, I know PBS, Disney and Nick Jr. are all selling my kids on Chuck E Cheese , but believe me, they’d want to go anyway.) So their ability to repeat nearly word for word what the commercials boasts is genuinely shocking.

Commercials are designed to make me want something that I don’t need. Everything about them, if done well, either makes me remember the product or create a desire to have whatever product they are selling. Which begs the questions: 1) Do I want to subject my children to this? 2) Since I don’t have much choice, how do I help them to understand the trick that is being played on them?

Unless you are an advertising executive, I think the answer to the first questions is a simple “no.” Of course we don’t want our children to be subjected to a barrage of half-truths that will create confusion about reality and a skewed understanding of “needs.” So how do we address the issue of helping them to understand? I’ll admit that I have been known to make a purchase based on advertising! I’m betting you have too. Why? Because we suddenly think we need IT. What we forget is that for hundreds and thousands of years the human race lived without the conveniences that we are told are necessity.

I guess I would offer two simple pieces of advice. First, if your children are under five years old, don’t let them view television with commercials. Stick to kid-centered channels with no commercial advertisements or videos that you have previewed. If kids are older than five, start talking to them about what commercials are and why they are on television. Explain to them that, just like television programming, not everything they see is TRUTH. Commercials are created to sell you something and they are betting that you will want it. Watch some commercials together and point out the falsities and ask the question, “Is that something our family would need?” It’s okay if the answer is “yes.”

For example, do you need laundry detergent? Sure. Do you have to purchase a particular brand? Not really, but this is great conversation starter with older kids. You may prefer a certain brand, but you could wash your family’s clothes with any number of brand-name or generic detergents. Talk about how you choose what to use based on price, environmental impact, scent, and other factors.

Just like everything else in life, it’s our job to help our kids to navigate their way through the world. Television is bound to be a part of it. As they get older, it will be advertisements on the radio or in magazines (Lord, have mercy on mothers with daughters), and we will have to continue the discussions.

Have you navigated this issue with your kids already? We’d love to hear your wisdom!

-Jenna  Hallock

(Stock photo by plasti20)

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  • comment avatar Lori Lavender Luz May 19, 2010

    An excellent topic, Jenna.

    Part of my job is to help my children become critical thinkers and savvy consumers. You mention excellent ways to open up these discussions.

    I want them to know that just because it’s on TV (on in print or online) doesn’t mean it’s true. Not just for ads, but also for reports and opinion pieces, too!

    My kids often help me test out products to review. This gives us a chance to see if a thing does what its makers say it does. We read juice and cereal labels, for example, to see how much sugar is in a serving so that they can see how I make my shopping choices.

  • comment avatar Jenna Hallock May 19, 2010

    It’s true, Lori. Even digesting “factual” media, we need to be in discussion to help our kids learn to think for themselves.

  • comment avatar Mia @ Finding Balance May 21, 2010

    I feel the same…not liking the commercials they have on during certain shows. However, I even find the kid-centered channels are showing commercials for items / even other cartoons that aren’t age appropriate for the age range the show targets.

    However, shielding as much as possible, I also try to use the commercials as a learning experience. That’s what we do with most things, right?