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Is Marketing to Teens, Children, and Even Babies Ethical?

Updated on July 20, 2017

Advertising in our culture has become intrinsic to everyday life, it is so fiercely ingrained in everything we see and do that I don’t think anyone can go anywhere populated and avoid advertisement for a day. Hell, I’m not even sure this is possible for an hour. The only places I can think of to get away from it as is hiking deep into the woods or up a mountain, or perhaps visiting some tiny village in a third world country. How did this all start? Where is it going?

Prior to the 1950’s advertising to children was a fairly unheard of concept. Yes, there were advertisements in the Sear’s Catalog for children’s clothes and toys, and some of the boxes that children’s products came in were slightly more colorful than other adult product boxes, but this was the extent of it. A child could happily grow up never knowing that other children might be playing with store bought toys. Then of course the TV craze began. When TV started becoming popular in the home it wasn’t long before someone realized that the little magic boxes could be used to entertain children. Shows dedicated entirely to the entertainment of children started to pop up and they were hugely popular. Just think about Howdy Doody. Even people who were born long after this creepy little puppet was popular can still see his terrifying freckled face in their head. That on its own is pretty bad but then there were the commercials. What sort of commercials do you put between the breaks in a children’s show? Plastic had just recently been brought into popular use and now toy makers could make cheap inferior factory manufactured toys for the masses. They latched onto the new media and started to give everything a new jingle, usually written in contests by bored housewives. Soon everyone loved a slinky and had their own Rock Em’ Sock Em’ Robots. Then there were the food advertisements… They didn’t come on the television to tell children to eat their broccoli, they came to tell them that, “Oh you need fluff, fluff, fluff to make a fluffer nutter. Marshmallow fluff and lots of peanut butter!” This began the fast food epidemic. McDonald’s wasn’t going to miss out on this golden opportunity and before you knew it they were advertising with a clown and cartoon characters obviously targeted towards children. The sugary cereals also paraded their own set of cartoon icons across the screen. There was Tony the Tiger, Count Chocula, Toucan Sam, the Trix rabbit, the lucky charms leprechaun, the Keebler Elves, and I could go on.

Advertising to kids remained this way for decades and then something sleazy started to happen in the 1990’s. Advertisers began to market not just kid’s stuff to children and teens but adult stuff and the ages they targeted kept getting younger and younger. Eventually they started targeting the coveted 0-3 range in an attempt to gain, “lifelong customers.” They learned that babies as young as six months of age could remember brand icons and logos an that they could rattle off dozens of them by the time they hit kindergarten. They hired child psychologists to help them crack open their fragile little heads and pour in their message. Psychologists told them that children under the age of five could not distinguish between the relative reality of a television program and the fantasy of the commercials between them. Children didn’t seem to concretely get this concept until they were as old as eight years of age. Before you knew it there were commercials on the TV, run during daytime hours, directed at babies. Think of the Luv’s commercial of 2011. Is it a coincidence it is a cartoon made in all sorts of baby friendly colors?


A Bratz doll - if this is not a hooker with botox lips I don't know what is. Check out the "Babe" belly shirt. Call me old fashioned but at least Barbie had some class.
A Bratz doll - if this is not a hooker with botox lips I don't know what is. Check out the "Babe" belly shirt. Call me old fashioned but at least Barbie had some class.
Scene from Happy Feet. Notice how the penguin on the right, the female, has a synched waist and high breast-like chest. Is this really necessary??
Scene from Happy Feet. Notice how the penguin on the right, the female, has a synched waist and high breast-like chest. Is this really necessary??
This little prosti-tot was dressed up to look like a little "Pretty Woman" for a pageant shown of Toddlers and Tiaras.
This little prosti-tot was dressed up to look like a little "Pretty Woman" for a pageant shown of Toddlers and Tiaras.
Another Toddlers and Tiaras star. This girl can't be more than five or six. All our girls are going to think they should look like this if we don't knock it off.
Another Toddlers and Tiaras star. This girl can't be more than five or six. All our girls are going to think they should look like this if we don't knock it off.
The US Army has gotten into the action and is now using it's official video game as a possible recruiting method, marketing it to teens.
The US Army has gotten into the action and is now using it's official video game as a possible recruiting method, marketing it to teens.

With our televisions often being our babysitters in this cold and calculating world we can only imagine what garbage is being repeatedly put into these kid’s minds. They’re being brainwashed and we didn’t even have a clue! And if we thought sending them to school would keep them safe from these forces you’d be wrong. Schools lacking proper funding have resorted to having soda and snack machines in their cafeterias. Companies have offered them big money to put their advertisements in classrooms and on buses and perhaps the lowest blow of all is what they call buzz. Buzz is when a company watches a group of children or teenagers, finds the ‘coolest’ one amongst them, and then hires them to wear their brand name product on their T-shirts or other clothing.

Many parents have become concerned about the sexualization of children and this is but a small part of the problem. Yes, there are things out there like Brat dolls that are obscenely thin and way over sexualized that are just the beginning steps to showing young girls what they should be like in our society. I have been horrified watching things like the Disney Channel and other children’s programming where the female characters all look like stick figures in miniskirts, with enormous lips, and more make-up than a whore. And we wonder why so many girls have eating disorders? It’s insidious and everywhere. We have to remember that we have to keep a balance on this sort of thing. We as parents have to tell our young girls that they are all beautiful in their own way because they are unique human beings and keep repeating that to them until they believe in it so strongly that none of this other stuff matters. Meanwhile we have to keep a watch on our boys. Video game products and others have been marketing wholesale violence to them at a level never seen before. Though I don’t think playing a video game will make you the next school shooter I do believe seeing so much violence so often in video games, TV shows, movies, and even advertisements does have a very desensitizing effect.

All and all, our consumer society is now raising its children to be consumerists, nothing more, nothing less. From the time they are able to form a cognitive thought they are being told they’re not good enough unless they have such n such a toy, that everyone on the block has one, and they must buy buy buy! These sleazy advertising tactics are raising children with low self-worth who see the world around them as only being as valuable as what they can buy. It’s a twisted narcissistic view that can only lead to an entitlement generation that is never satisfied with anything it gets. I am already seeing this in the teenagers today. It is damned hard to find a teenager that actually does anything at their first job. I don’t think this is an inherently teenage attitude, I think its society messing with their brains, I really do.

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    • profile image

      Sanxuary 2 years ago

      Kids are the easiest targets of advertisers in shaping them into becoming consumers. It really does not end there. The public education system teaches our children that punching a ticket equals success. Most parents believe this as well and its less and less true these days. I had this discussion with many teenagers who would not believe me. It does not take long after graduation to know its false. The countless kids unable to make it on their own and the poverty is unbelievable. That's right a diploma means nothing. A job and even two jobs might not be enough to get a head. Even college is no ticket to success. Still we see the advertisements daily promising success and true results. Most promise us debt or take our money and really nothing else because the system is broken and success was never as great as we were lead to believe in the first place. Think how much simpler our children would be without all these advertisers and liars of false belief systems convincing them of false hoods.

    • Theophanes profile image
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      Theophanes 2 years ago from New England

      Our education system is something else that is in dire need of a haul out. I agree. Diplomas and whatnot are worth almost nothing these days and then kids plunge into debt going to college studying useless and unemployable fields. Even the fields which do have employment value have a lot of issues... just read something about a young aspiring architect who was faltering in his studies because, get this, he actually learns by building stuff, not staring at a textbook! After puling many teeth he was allowed to build something and proved he was actually better at designing than his peers who had no sense of what each material was capable of doing! There is no place in this world anymore for discoverers, doers, or autodidacts. It's maddening. As for advertising... yep, we've had the wool pulled over our eyes.... Thank you so much for commenting! I enjoy a well reasoned comment from time to time. :) Cheers.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 2 years ago from Oakley, CA

      I could not agree more! It sickens and angers me to no end!

      There is really no excuse. I don't watch much kid's TV--my own kids are long since grown, but even back then, I was noticing a trend toward making the commercial blend in slickly with the programming, so that reality/fantasy cognition aside, it took even an adult a few seconds to realize that the show had morphed into a commercial break. This is so insidious, and yes, evil.

      I could go on and on and on, but you've said it all very well! Voted up, useful, awesome, interesting, shared and pinned!

    • Theophanes profile image
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      Theophanes 2 years ago from New England

      Thank you! I know, these days I am not sure there is a difference between commercials and children's programming... Time to switch off the TV!

    • profile image

      Average16yrold 20 months ago

      So anytime I see or anyone I know sees a commercial on the tv we just want it over with to get to our regular show, advertising doesn't work as well on us as it does other/smaller kids. What I am worried about is going into a college and comming out to be a failure anyways, that scares me. I believe I can have a good future along with other kids as well but with the system our government has it seems they just want us to join a military branch instead and come out with a paycheck and then end of homeless/poor anyways. All this is about is money and it sucks, it may be because we (America) is in such debt. With the president we have now, our future is almost nothing. He hasn't done nothing for us.

    • profile image

      Kieren 15 months ago

      Your article was very good up until you used the word "whore" I don't think it was necessary. Other than that it was good, I agree with a number of points.

    • profile image

      ignorancehater 13 months ago

      "the US Army has gotten into the action and is now using it's official video game as a possible recruiting method, marketing it to teens."

      A: the picture shown is not of the game, It is of 'Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

      B: The game has a Mature rating meaning a 17+ player base

      C: The developer was hired to help recreate the experience of real soldiers, which means those who do not like the game but know this fact would know that a military life is no for them.

      D: this is the most important thing; IF YOU DON"T KNOW WHAT YOUR KIDS ARE PLAYING THEN YOU ARE IRRESPONSIBLE AND HAVE LITTLE TO SAY ABOUT ETHICS WHEN YOU DO NOT KNOW IF YOUR CHILD IS PLAYING A MILITARY SIMULATOR UNDER A CERTAIN AGE AND YOU DID NOT ALLOW THEM TO.

    • Theophanes profile image
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      Theophanes 10 months ago from New England

      I am sorry to hear about your fears Average16yrold. My generation is the most educated and the least paid and yours might be even worse off.... I get where you are coming from and I wish I could be of more help. All I can say is consider a trade school versus a college... With any luck you'll have a job afterwards and won't be under crushing financial debt. Good luck.

    • Theophanes profile image
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      Theophanes 10 months ago from New England

      Thank you Kieren for commenting. We all use a different vocabulary to get our points across... I don't recall where I said whore, maybe I will read it over again, but I am sure it wasn't superfluous.... To each their own.

    • Theophanes profile image
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      Theophanes 10 months ago from New England

      Thank you for commenting ignorancehater - I am not always able to get uncopyrighted photos of exactly what I am talking about. It's a common problem to writers here on Hubpages. I also do not have children but thank you for implying I am raising them poorly.... I appreciate that. Thank you for your comments.

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