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Teaching kids to be savvy about advertising

Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse  May 3, 2010 12:59 PM

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I try to watch what my kids watch, which right now means lots of Nickelodeon and Nick Jr. and PBS. It also means that the commercials I sit through are aimed either at kids (Toys! Games! Candy!) or moms (Body wash! Convenience foods! Household cleaning products!). Or, I should say, "moms," because as I've said before, a commercial pitched directly to most multitasking parents I know would involve wine and sleep.

As far as the kids go, at least, the ads are obviously working: Even PBS has "spots" featuring their sponsors, and though my 5- and 3-year-olds have yet to set foot in any restaurant with a giant-rodent theme, they're clamoring to go -- without really knowing what they're clamoring to go to.

Advertising directed at children is nothing new. "What is new is how connected kids are to technology," said David C. Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a press conference last week. "Many kids are now plugged in to some kind of media for more than seven hours a day -- which means their exposure to advertising is at record levels."

Which is why the Federal Trade Commission has partnered with education giant in a campaign launched last week to educate children about advertising. It's called Admongo, and it's goal is to give kids the skills they need to identify advertising and avoid manipulation.

“Today’s kids see advertising everywhere – in movies and TV shows, outdoors, on phones, in games,” Vladeck said. "That’s why it’s important to teach them how to apply critical thinking skills to the ads they see."

The campaign is aimed at 5th and 6th graders -- tweens and pre-teens -- and is anchored by a fun fantasy game kids play for free online at Kids can create an avatar and navigate four levels of play to find ways to think critically about advertising.

They start in the Atrium, where they learn to identify ads in general; from there, they move on to an area where they can take ads apart and evaluate them before learning about how ads are targeted. In the final level, they show what they've learned by building and targeting their own ads. Throughout the game, players must ask themselves three questions about what they see: Who is responsible for the ad? What is it actually saying? What does it want me to do? (Non game-savvy parents take note: A cheat sheet is available at the Admongo site, so you can keep up with your kids.)

The site also has free resources for schools and teachers, including a curriculum tied to national standards for learning in language arts and social studies, with more than 90 lesson plans, fictional ads, and activities for parents and kids to do at home.

Oscar Ramírez, a teacher at Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in Washington, DC. called the Admongo game and resources "a no brainer." “It’s free, well done, and smart, and it gives teachers the tools to help students develop much-needed skills,” he said. "Students can transfer these skills to when they read a poem, or a novel, or the text in a history book, or the newspaper."

"The commercial world like an ocean," said C. Lee Peeler, President and CEO of the National Advertising Review Council and Executive Vice President for National Advertising Self-Regulation at the Council of Better Business Bureaus. "If you live near the beach, you can try to build barriers to keep kids away from the water, or you can teach them to swim."

Parents, I'm sure you've noticed all of the ads on kids' TV these days. How do you deal with it? Do your kids routinely ask for everything they see, or do they seem to ignore the advertising automatically?

Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at and follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat.

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8 comments so far...
  1. Interesting idea, but I wish it was for younger kids. By the time they are 5th and 6th graders, they've already formed opinions and buying habits (seems to have happened younger and younger). What I can't stand is that channels like PBS sprout and Nickelodeon have commercials during shows like The Wiggles or Dora that are clearly inappropriate for younger children and aimed at the parents. Do I really need to explain to my 5 yr old what being in debt is? Or have my 3 yr old ask me why I don't wear Bare Essentuals makeup?

    Posted by momofthreeboys May 4, 10 10:38 AM
  1. Great point, Momofthreeboys. I took a look at some of the info for parents and teachers at the site, and I think I'm going to try to use the simpler stuff with my 5- and 3-year-olds (I think my 11-year-old will enjoy the interactive online game, though)... -- LMA

    Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse Author Profile Page May 4, 10 11:48 AM
  1. I dreaded having kids with the "gimmes" and I think I succeeded in sparing myself from that. When my kids were little we had a half hour per day rule for TV and it was only PBS or quality videos allowed. Being a working parent, there wasn't much time for more anyway. Their daycare did not have a TV either. Weekends would see more or less TV depending on the weather and what we had going on. Sure, the kids would hear about Spongebob or other characters but believe it or not, it did not make them resentful or social outcasts. My kids rarely asked for particular types of toys or to eat at fast food restaurants and it was simply because they weren't reminded of them daily by commercials. Now, school and sports are so time consuming that TV stays off Mon-Thurs. I don't censor their TV too much (unfortunately their earlier PBS indoctrination did not turn them into avid Nova fans) but they generally watch prerecorded shows and skip over the commercials by choice. I really do feel that my efforts to avoid commercials were well worth it.

    Posted by Cordelia May 4, 10 01:42 PM
  1. The fact that kids are plugged in for seven hours a day is a crisis of parenting. Teach your kids to avoid advertising by taking the TV out of the house entirely. Do not allow video games until they are old enough to already be in the habit of riding bikes, gardening, playing with friends or otherwise interacting with the real world.

    Corporate electronic media has no place in a healthy family with children 0-5 years old. The proof is in the pudding, and I am constantly shocked at the media-addictions of my 3-year-old's peers. The impact it has had on their development is impossible to ignore. My wife and I are confident that we are raising boys that will have no problem competing and thriving in an America filled with effectively illiterate 7-hour-a-day media consumers.

    Employers of the future are going to be desperate for people with simple common sense people skills.

    Posted by KillTheTV May 4, 10 02:25 PM
  1. I find it ironic that Scholastic is so involved in this process as there book sales have gone completely commercial. There is no more literature, it is all characters spun off from TV shows. In addition, in the last few years the book sale done at my daughter's school sold more trinkets than books or so it seemed.

    We did not have cable when my kids were younger and I live very frugally. My son (14) is very immune to the commercial/advertising bug. My daughter (12) is a completely different story. She has been asking for things (everything) since the day she could say the words "I need". Although, TV exaserbates the gimmees, I'm wondering if a lot of it is just personality and the desire to have what your friends/peers have.

    Posted by Jayne May 4, 10 03:31 PM
  1. we try to limit tv in our house. but they do somehow manage to know every toy commercial. our kids are pretty good - when we go to a store i tell them we are going for XYZ and thats it. sometimes they ask for things but not often. when they do i tell them that is a great toy to add to their wishlist - then when someone asks what you want for your bday (or xmas etc) they can offer a suggestion. if its something small - i might say we can work towards saving our money in our piggybank for it.

    i also hate some of the commercials on tv. do i have to have my 4 yrs old ask me what tampax is for?

    Posted by kiki May 4, 10 05:27 PM
  1. My kids (at 8 and 10) still watch PBS and videos almost exclusively. My 10 year old asks to watch Saturday morning cartoons, but only is allowed one show. They watch Spongebob, etc. on vacation or at Grandma's, and when they ask for a toy or food, we talk about it - do you think it's really as good/fun as the commercial shows? Why? It costs $X - are you willing to spend your money? If not, why should I buy it for you? It works for us.

    I agree that the vast majority of stuff in the Scholastic flyers is junk I won't let my kids have. An iCarly sticker book? Are you kidding me?

    Posted by akmom May 5, 10 06:49 AM
  1. The more technology our kids are exposed to, the more they need to be educated. I run a site that reviews kids games/apps on the iPhone and am constantly amazed at how mobile advertising is inserted in subtle ways; and often the mobile ad networks have no control of messaging (meaning little ones see ads for beer, "ladies", etc.). A parent has to be really vigilant to make sure they 1) see the ads themselves whenever possible and 2) discuss it with their children, so they realise the POV of the marketer behind the ad (i.e. to sell their product). A little goes a long way, and now my daughter and I make games out of it. She's still exposed, but at least she's more savvy.

    Posted by Susanne Schantz-Dexter May 5, 10 07:51 AM
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about the author

Lylah M. Alphonse
Lylah M. Alphonse is a member of the Globe Magazine staff and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling a full-time career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day, and about everything else at Write. Edit. Repeat. When she's not glued to the computer or solving a kid-related crisis, she's in the kitchen or, occasionally, asleep.

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