Advertising and Marketing to Children: Why Parents Should be Concerned

Why should advertising and marketing to children be a priority concern for mothers and fathers?

We live in a nation in which the values of what sociologist Robert Bellah calls the money world are steadily crowding out the values of what I call the motherworld. The dominant values of our culture are radical individualism, excessive materialism, and bottom-line thinking– and they leave little room for values such as connectedness, interdependence, commitment, and other qualities necessary for raising healthy, caring, and ethical children. This profound imbalance lies at the root of our culture’s inhospitability to children and to the work of nurturing children.

To make our culture more hospitable to children –as well as mothering and fathering– we must find ways to strike a healthier balance between the values of the motherworld and the values of the money world. In my view, we must begin by reining in the forces of advertising and marketing that so dominate American life today.

Advertising is about much more than selling products and services; it is a major carrier of the values of the money world. The dominant message of advertising today is what one marketing professor calls “got-to-have-it or gimme”– that life is about self-indulgence, instant gratification, and hyper-materialism. These values are at odds with what it takes to raise healthy children who can live well in community with others and who can contribute to a democratic society.

For almost twenty -five years, advertisers and marketers have been in a heated competition with each other to exploit the children’s consumer market. That part of the story should be obvious. We can see it in the explosion of ads directed at children on television, radio, Internet, billboards, and other public places. What is less obvious is the fact that advertisers and marketers are also in an intense competition with mothers and fathers–to train children as lifelong consumers. The goal, as several advertising executives have put it, is to “become part of the fabric of [children’s] lives;” ” getting them early and having them for life;” and “to own [children] younger and younger and younger.”

In the quest to “own” our children, advertisers and marketers have become extremely aggressive–almost predatory. They are advertising to children in ways that maximize the “nag factor” and encourage children to pester their parents until they buy. They are targeting preschoolers and they are advertising and marketing in the nation’s schools. They are engaging in strategies with ominous names such as “viral”marketing, “stealth” advertising, and “immersive” advertising–all designed to market to children in ways that escape their notice.

Mothers and fathers have been worried about the effects of advertising and marketing on children for some time, but now even professionals in the field are acknowledging that things gave gone too far. In a recent survey by Harris Interactive, a majority of youth marketing professionals agreed that “advertising to children begins at too young an age;” ” there is too much advertising directed at children;” “most companies put pressure on children to pester their parents to buy things;” “young people are being marketed to in ways they don’t even notice;” and “most companies put pressure on kids to grow up faster than they should.” And a recent study by the Mothers’ Council found that self-regulation in the advertising and marketing industry is woefully inadequate.

A growing body of research shows that advertising and marketing to children is associated with the dramatic increase in childhood obesity and eating disorders, the escalation in youth violence, irresponsible and precocious sexual activity, family stress, and excessively materialistic values. The advertising and marketing industry exerts a profound negative influence on our children– on how they eat, how they play, how they dress, how they behave, what they think, and what they value. That is why the Motherhood Project has been working on its own and in partnership with others at the Coalition to Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children to limit the influence of advertisers and marketers in children’s lives.

The escalation in advertising and marketing to children began in 1980 when Congress, bowing to corporate pressure, rescinded the authority of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to regulate advertising to children. With no government oversight, advertising and marketing to children has spun out of control. Until recently, appeals by mothers, fathers, and other concerned citizens to Congress for help in dealing with the excesses of advertisers, have fallen on deaf ears.

But on June 17, 2004, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa proposed legislation that would put the FTC back into the business of regulating advertising to children. The Harkin bill is an important step in the battle to end the commercialization of our children’s lives .

We can expect the bill to meet fierce opposition. Twenty-five years ago, when corporate interests mobilized to restrict the FTC’s power, mothers and fathers remained largely silent. We cannot make the same mistake again. This time, we must make our voices heard. We are at a crucial moment in the struggle to create a healthier balance between the values of the money world and the values of the motherworld.

To learn more about the Harkin bill and how you can support it, please visit or

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