Exposing the Dangers of Targeting Children as Consumers

July 03, 2024 • By The UCI Paul Merage School of Business

Over 50 years ago, studies were done to determine how advertising to children affected their consumption of junk food, cigarettes and alcohol. The results underscored the need to focus more research on the well-being of underage consumers and the influence of marketing on their physical, emotional and mental health.

In the decades since those early studies, academics have continued to explore the interaction between kids and marketing. Professor Connie Pechmann of the UCI Paul Merage School of Business, together with several colleagues from distinguished business schools across the country, has been studying the topic’s history to gain insights that may be useful to policy makers and others.

Pechmann joined Deborah Roedder John, professor of marketing at Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, and Lan Nguyen Chaplin, professor of marketing at the Department of Integrated Marketing Communications, Northwestern University, in coediting a series of papers that provide an overview of the last 50 years of research on the consumer behavior of children. Their lead article, “Understanding the Past and Preparing for Tomorrow: Children and Adolescent Consumer Behavior Insights from Research in Our Field,” was published in April 2024 in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, the world’s largest global consumer research organization.

“We’ve been studying children and adolescent consumer behavior for 50 years,” says Pechmann. “The focus has always been on risks to their health and mental well-being. However, the target has changed over time. We started out with television advertising being the greatest risk, but now it’s moved toward social media, cannabis, vape and poverty.”


Overcoming Obstacles to Protect Children

As necessary as it is to understand how advertising negatively affects children, Pechmann says the research can be very difficult. “There isn’t a lot of research done on children because they’re such a protected group. You have to go through many more hurdles. Parents, of course, want to protect their children, and if the activities are illegal—like alcohol or cannabis—parents don’t want to reveal the information, so it makes it even harder.” The necessity of anonymity further limits the potential scope of research, because it prevents researchers from monitoring a subject’s progress over time.

Parents can be a source of complication as well. During interviews, parents can interfere with the process, which can reduce the accuracy of a child’s answers.

Such barriers haven’t stopped Pechmann and her coauthors from studying the consequences of advertising on children and their behaviors. “Everyone is very passionate about children,” she says. “We all started out as children. Many of us have children, so everyone is interested in protecting children and adolescents.”

To overcome the challenges associated with researching children and their consumer behaviors, Pechmann and her coauthors had to be creative. “Several of us arranged to go into schools, and we offered the schools something in return: drug education, for example,” she says. “In exchange for an hour of class time to collect data, we provided an additional class period of drug education to fill their state requirements. It’s not easy, but if you work hard, you can do it.”


Leveraging Government Surveys and Social Media

Some user data on children were available through social media and government surveys. “In Canada, the government decided to do a very large survey of children and adolescents on smoking,” says Pechmann. “California also does a healthy kids survey. Of course it’s anonymous, but they also go through schools, and they provide the data for free. Every once in a while, if we’re trying to reach really young children or children and their parents, we will work through a preschool or a nonprofit group that helps with parenting and very young children.”


Providing a Historical Overview of Childhood Research

In their article, Pechmann and her colleagues provide a historical overview of research on child consumers. “We start out looking at the ’70s and ’80s research on television advertising to children,” says Pechmann. “That was the main issue at the time. In the ’80s and ’90s we studied media literacy and how to teach children to become more savvy consumers. We also studied parenting behavior because parents have a huge influence on their kids. This led to a classification of parenting styles.”

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s through around 2010 that researchers started to look into children’s use of cigarettes and alcohol. “These products are illegal for children to use,” says Pechmann, “so we wanted to understand how they were using them and why. 2010 was also the year we started to study food because of rising childhood obesity rates, which has now spread globally.”

In 2020 research shifted to the effects of social media on children. “The average teenager spends eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen,” Pechmann says. “It’s frightening. Twenty-two percent of adolescent deaths in the United States are from suicide. We don’t always think about the mental health issues that result from these activities.”

In addition to social media consumption, researchers have also looked at how poverty shapes children. “One in six youth who are 17 or younger live in poverty in the United States,” says Pechmann. “That number is increasing, but we also need to talk about multiculturalism because that’s also increasing substantially. Until now, our focus has always been on white youth. We need to focus on Black and Brown children and the issues relevant to them.”


Exposing the Impact of Media and Advertising on Children

Pechmann is optimistic about the positive news coming from the research. “In 2004 the EU finally decided to ban advertising to children and adolescents,” she says. “That was something the United States tried to do in the ’70s and ’80s, but it didn’t succeed. There are some examples of successes, like when we see the smoking rate declined massively because there was so much attention on youth and smoking in the ’90s.”

Youth smoking was in decline until Juul came along with different flavors of vape. “Then it went back up again. Sometimes we close the door, and it opens back up, or it’s a slightly different door.”

The reason why this research is so important is that, up until age 18, young people are highly vulnerable to advertising. “There’s a lot of neuroscience that explains why adolescents and children are so vulnerable,” says Pechmann. “They’re much more attuned to rewards, much less attentive to consequences and risks, much more tolerant of ambiguity, much more sensitive to social cues and much more impulsive, so they don’t have a lot of cognitive control.” This is an advertiser’s dream, she says.


The Importance of Proper Parenting

While the research sometimes seems like it contains an abundance of dismal news, Pechmann wants to emphasize the silver lining. “We’ve learned a lot about what makes a good parent,” she says. “I’m not sure how easy it is to train parents, but we have extensive research that says the best parenting style is authoritative—not authoritarian where you boss [your children] around.”

Parents definitely need to set rules and boundaries, establish consequences, and set expectations so their children don’t make too many troubling choices, she says. “You have to be flexible. If you establish a punishment, it should be a reasonable punishment.”


Emphasizing the Value of Media Literacy

One positive takeaway from the research is the importance of media literacy. “We’ve made a lot of progress in this area because we now really understand how to teach that,” says Pechmann. “For example, California just passed a law that says they have to cover media literacy from elementary school through high school, and we know what to teach.”

Educational strategies must be adjusted for the student’s age, she says. “If someone is 7 or 8 years old, you can’t teach them the same thing as if they’re 17. When they’re 17, you can talk about tobacco companies targeting them. When they’re 7, you can teach them there’s such a thing as an ad that tries to persuade them to do something.” Yet, they have difficulty grasping that idea. “Let them know there’s an agenda behind the ad, and advertisers are likely to exaggerate the benefits. That’s where you start. There’s a lot of guidance here.”

One fascinating aspect of their research showed that the most effective deterrent to smoking, for example, was not to focus on the negative health effects but on social acceptability. “The Truth campaign made big gains against tobacco by saying smoking was socially unacceptable,” says Pechmann.

“That seems to be the way to go because young people don’t expect to live to be 70 years old. They think middle age is 30 or 40, so it doesn’t work to talk about the long-term health effects of smoking. The old anti-smoking and anti-drug messages were very much health-based: ‘Here’s your lung after smoking for years,’ and ‘here’s your brain on drugs.’ That approach has hopefully disappeared because it doesn’t work. Young people want immediate rewards, but they do not want immediate rejection from their friends for being uncool.”


How Persistence Pays Off

When it comes to advocating for children, Pechmann has learned persistence is key. “Today around 14 states have passed media literacy laws,” she says. “You have to be very persistent. If you just keep putting the articles out, and you keep sharing the data, it may take up to 50 years, but eventually we can start to legislate educational programs that benefit children and adolescents.”

The lesson here is to keep going, she says. “We can’t expect an immediate response. It’s taken 40 years, and we’re finally getting traction. The people who did the early research are about to retire, and it’s only now making a difference. That’s the lesson we have to learn as researchers. We are having an impact, but it might take a while.”