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 Scholastic.com 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 Admongo.gov. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat.