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Combat Commercials: Arm Your Kids with Critical Thinking Skills

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Combat Commercials: Arm Your Kids with Critical Thinking Skills
Photo credit: Getty Images/Digital Vision

If you’ve ever let your kids watch a TV show with advertising, you’ve probably experienced the frenzied, “Mom, Dad! Come see this!” as they jump up and down about the amazing new toy on TV. Advertising is powerful – that’s why companies pay millions for it – and it is especially effective on kids.

Up until a certain age, kids may not even distinguish ads from other programming or understand the persuasive nature of advertising. Yet, according to an AAP study, kids in the United States see 40,000 commercials each year. With all kinds of ads from many different sources, kids' minds are inundated with images and messages which can be both obvious and deceptively subtle.

Talking to kids about advertising not only helps them understand the persuasive intentions of the ads, but it also teaches them to question and evaluate information on their own. Here are some steps to arm your kids against advertising and teach them valuable thinking skills in the process:

  • First, identify advertising: Point out commercials when they come on so that kids know what they are. But don’t stop at the TV, also point out ads in magazines, on billboards, in public places, or anywhere else ads can be found. Especially look for product placement ads or sponsorship advertising that may not seem to kids like advertising at all.
  • Explain the persuasive purpose of advertising: Help your kids understand that a commercial is paid for by the company that makes the product, and that the purpose of the commercial is to entice people to buy the product so that said company can make money.
  • Explain that commercials are opinion, not fact, and can even be misleading: Kids need to know that companies try to make their product look great so people will want to buy it. Most young kids don't realize that the kids playing with toys on a commercial are paid actors, or that just because an ad says a certain restaurant’s burgers are the best, it doesn’t mean that they are.
  • Talk back to commercials: Help kids see where opinion comes into commercials by occasionally talking back. If a woman on TV says that her laundry detergent gets clothes cleaner than any other, and you happen to like your own detergent, go ahead and say it out loud. When your kids hear you say, “You know, I’ve tried that brand but I actually like brand XYZ better,” they’ll get a concrete example of how ads that come across as fact are actually full of opinion. Also, saying things like, “That looks interesting and I may want to try that product someday, but I don’t really need it right now,” helps kids see that just because you like something in an ad doesn’t mean you have to run right out and buy it.
  • Challenge kids to analyze ads for themselves: Ask kids to figure out what product an ad is selling. Help them determine different strategies that advertisers use – all of the visual and implied messages as well as what is being said or acted out. Ask kids to determine what they think about an advertised product, listing both positives and possible negatives. Then, take it a step further and have your children think of a product and create a skit advertisement for it. Thinking like an advertiser will get their creativity going, and they will be able to more easily spot advertising tactics in the future.
  • Talk to kids about the subtle underlying messages ads send: As kids get older, it’s important to talk to them about the underlying messages in all kinds of ads. By becoming aware of these messages, kids can analyze them and process them instead of just taking in the messages and assimilating them into their world view. Show kids that advertisers often use beautiful people or stars in ads so that consumers will want the product and feel beautiful buying it. Reveal to kids the tricks advertisers use in showing people having fun while using their product, and explain how seeing these images can plant the idea that the product must make life easier or happier. As kids learn to question images and ideas that come into their minds through advertising, they will be able to use those analytical skills in other areas of life as well.
  • Let kids in on the purchasing process: When you do decide to purchase something you have seen advertised, show children that it’s important to compare prices and features of different products before buying. Never just take an advertiser’s word for it!
  • Limit exposure to ads: Some ads may not convey the types of values that you want your kids to adopt. While you can't completely prevent kids from seeing objectionable advertising -- whether it's a commercial for a steamy soap opera that comes on during a family game show or a bill board on the side of the road, kids are bound to see or hear something sometime -- you can limit exposure with preventative measures like fast forwarding commercials or keeping magazines with ads out of kids' hands. But, when kids are exposed to ads, take the opportunity to make it a teaching moment.
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