Children and Advertising
Young children are trusting of commercial advertisements in the media, and advertisers have sometimes been accused of taking advantage of this trusting outlook. The Independent Television Commission, regulator of television advertising in the United Kingdom, has criticized advertisers for "misleadingness"-creating a wrong impression either intentionally or unintentionally-in an effort to control advertisers' use of techniques that make it difficult for children to judge the true size, action, performance, or construction of a toy.
General concern about misleading tactics that advertisers employ is centered on the use of exaggeration. Consumer protection groups and parents believe that children are largely ill-equipped to recognize such techniques and that often exaggeration is used at the expense of product information. Claims such as "the best" or "better than" can be subjective and misleading; even adults may be unsure as to their meaning. They represent the advertiser's opinions about the qualities of their products or brand and, as a consequence, are difficult to verify. Advertisers sometimes offset or counterbalance an exaggerated claim with a disclaimer-a qualification or condition on the claim. For example, the claim that breakfast cereal has a health benefit may be accompanied by the disclaimer "when part of a nutritionally balanced breakfast." However, research has shown that children often have difficulty understanding disclaimers: children may interpret the phrase "when part of a nutritionally balanced breakfast" to mean that the cereal is required as a necessary part of a balanced breakfast. The author George Comstock suggested that less than a quarter of children between the ages of six and eight years old understood standard disclaimers used in many toy advertisements and that disclaimers are more readily comprehended when presented in both audio and visual formats.Nevertheless, disclaimers are mainly presented in audio format only.
Fantasy is one of the more common techniques in advertising that could possibly mislead a young audience. Child-oriented advertisements are more likely to include magic and fantasy than advertisements aimed at adults. In a content analysis of Canadian television, the author Stephen Kline observed that nearly all commercials for character toys featured fantasy play. Children have strong imaginations and the use of fantasy brings their ideas to life, but children may not be adept enough to realize that what they are viewing is unreal. Fantasy situations and settings are frequently used to attract children's attention, particularly in food advertising. Advertisements for breakfast cereals have, for many years, been found to be especially fond of fantasy techniques, with almost nine out of ten including such content. Generally, there is uncertainty as to whether very young children can distinguish between fantasy and reality in advertising. Certainly, rational appeals in advertising aimed at children are limited, as most advertisements use emotional and indirect appeals to psychological states or associations.
The use of celebrities such as singers and movie stars is common in advertising. The intention is for the positively perceived attributes of the celebrity to be transferred to the advertised product and for the two to become automatically linked in the audience's mind. In children's advertising, the "celebrities" are often animated figures from popular cartoons. In the recent past, the role of celebrities in advertising to children has often been conflated with the concept of host selling. Host selling involves blending advertisements with regular programming in a way that makes it difficult to distinguish one from the other. Host selling occurs, for example, when a children's show about a cartoon lion contains an ad in which the same lion promotes a breakfast cereal. The psychologist Dale Kunkel showed that the practice of host selling reduced children's ability to distinguish between advertising and program material. It was also found that older children responded more positively to products in host selling advertisements.
Regarding the appearance of celebrities in advertisements that do not involve host selling, the evidence is mixed. Researcher Charles Atkin found that children believe that the characters used to advertise breakfast cereals are knowledgeable about cereals, and children accept such characters as credible sources of nutritional information. This finding was even more marked for heavy viewers of television.In addition, children feel validated in their choice of a product when a celebrity endorses that product. A study of children in Hong Kong, however, found that the presence of celebrities in advertisements could negatively affect the children's perceptions of a product if the children did not like the celebrity in question.