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

Theophanes is a New-England-based blogger, traveler, writer, photographer, sculptor, and lover of cats.

Is marketing to children, teens, and even babies unethical and problematic?

Is marketing to children, teens, and even babies unethical and problematic?

Are Advertisements Aimed at Children and Teenagers Ethical?

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 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 1950s, 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 toymakers 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 1990s. 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 and 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?

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 you 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 Bratz 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 and 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.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


Sergio Rodriguez on August 02, 2017:

Well, thank you! You surprised me with such a quick response; I hope I can surprise you as well.

In all honesty, I completely agree with your response. Yet I myself prefer to understand the negative parts of life and look towards the more positive side. Would you like to know why? It's because I believe in a philosophical ideology known as optimistic nihilism; we are all going to die - that's a well-known fact. So do what you love; time is far more valuable than money, it is not something that should be wasted. We are very small, insignificant compared to the scale of the universe. Except to us, the universe is insignificant; somewhere in the universe, a star just exploded. But it's as if nothing happened, that star was not important - at least, not for us.

Here's a quote by Carl Sagen

“.. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the 'Momentary' masters of a 'Fraction' of a 'Dot' ”

All that injustice, all that pain. In the end, do you think it was worth it? I don't think so.

This ideology loosely ties into this article. Does hurting people for money really matter in the end? Don't you think the only thing worth fighting for is injustice? I think so, but that's just me.

I apologize if this comment fell into a tangent.

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on July 31, 2017:

Thank you for such a well thought out comment Sergio Rodriguez. I know it's an old article but I still try to respond to new comments as best I can. :)

You're right - positivity can be a wonderful thing. It can inspire, it can bring joy. Unfortunately when you've seen as much life as I have you learn that corporations are rarely the ones who are capable of this. Their goal is to sell not to make you or anyone else's life better or happier. In fact advertisers prefer you're slightly unhappy as that's a fantastic motivator for people to buy more things they don't need. Sadly this has been an ongoing and worsening problem since the 1950's.

And of course social media (and cell phones!) are problematic. They are also 'wired' into our brains - with every 'like' we get the same jolt of hormones that'd make us happy winning at a gamble. It makes these things very addictive. Though this is a problem I don't have much in the way of ideas on how to fix it. Besides this you probably wouldn't want me to as I have been writing these articles for years and in addition to that I have a handful of blogs, two FaceBook business pages (one for my farm, one for my sculpting and art) and have an instagram and twitter besides, all regularly updated trying to hook more viewers - a very valuable resource for something I will be doing in the future. Am I evil for this? I don't think so - except for this cache of articles all my various accounts are cheerful and seem to be inspiring others to travel, to think, to explore, and to get more out of life. If I don't succeed at my goal I can at least be happy in having sent a wave of positivity out there for the universe to enjoy. In the meantime I have little fear of becoming too narcissistic as I see this as work and it's exhausting!

I know you probably won't stop by to see this reply but I hope if you do you can feel a bit vindicated. There's nothing I love more than engagement from up and coming young minds. It's a beautiful thing - don't you ever stop!

Sergio Rodriguez on July 30, 2017:

For the most, I agree that advertisements can have a very negative effect on today’s youth, (I myself am seventeen; do you consider my age to be in the youth category?) I believe the source of this problem does not stem from the advertisements themselves, but the content of said advertisements. For example, this advertisement is one that I’d consider to be very respectable https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-RY6fWVrQ0

This one as well https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hjKd24UCPYY People also tend to pay more attention to positive advertisements like the ones above. You want proof? Just go on YouTube and use the keyword advertisement; aside from the banned advertisements, the advertisements you’d find that the most viewed commercials are of the same caliber as those above. Now that’s not to say advertisements are without sin. Yes - there are many deplorable examples of advertisements. I’d just hope you’d understand; with advertisements, it’s not black and white either. There is a gradient; 256 shades of grey (Forgive me for that joke).

Completely unrelated to the topic at hand, I believe that one of the biggest problem facing even people older than millennials, is social media.

Here’s a link that highlights the issue better than I can in the small space that is this textbox


I’ll admit I have a bad addiction with YouTube.

By the way, I am well aware the chances for Theophanes to respond are very low.

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on September 18, 2016:

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.

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on September 18, 2016:

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 Avery (author) from New England on September 18, 2016:

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.

ignorancehater on June 08, 2016:

"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.


Kieren on April 25, 2016:

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.

Average16yrold on December 02, 2015:

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.

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on October 23, 2014:

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!

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on October 23, 2014:

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 Avery (author) from New England on October 23, 2014:

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.

Sanxuary on October 20, 2014:

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.

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