Inescapable Advertising

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Adverts, we pretty much all dislike them right? As adults we are savvy to the motives of branding on our subconscious to convince us where and how to spend our money. Because that’s what they are trying to get us to do, spend our money. Women in particular are more informed than ever as to the detrimental effects advertising and Photoshop are having on our body and self image.

But unfortunately as quickly as we get wise to the latest campaign for all-body-types-inclusive soaps or finally work out which car that abstract advert that didn’t actually have any cars in it is trying to tell us we should be driving, so too are advertising companies rapidly finding new ways to sell us stuff without us even noticing. And these, dare we say it, dangerous, new waves of embedded advertising are increasingly invading our children’s lives as well.

Marketing and advertising hold tremendous power to not only influence our spending but also our notions of what is appropriate and acceptable. Gendered adverts between our kid’s favourite shows often tell them what social roles and they should be playing and simply what they should and shouldn’t like. This in turn can influence what skills they develop and practice through play and creates artificial boundaries around their learning and progression.

So how can we teach our kids to dissect advertising, and more to the point, in today’s internet and social media obsessed climate, even notice when it is staring them in the face?! The rise in recent years of on demand and DVR recording TV means we have been making the choice to skip adverts altogether and this had forced them to take on whole new avenues of communication to reach us. At around age 8 kids can start to understand that advertising is a means to sell you something, before then children more often mistake them for information and take it at face value. Brand loyalty is of course best bred from a young age and make no mistake companies want your kids hooked as early as possible. When we were kids adverts were 30 second videos breaking up the stories of our favourite episodes. But now advertising can take on many new forms including: product placement, immersive websites, viral marketing, user-made content, social media campaigns and mobile apps.

 

More now than ever advertising and entertainment are inextricably linked. A study featured on Common Sense Media revealed that previous research showed that children aged 2 – 11 years old saw an average of about 25,600 adverts in a year on TV alone (12.8 a day of which were for food and drink). Since 2011 fast food, fizzy drink, cereal and confectionary adverts account for just under half of all the food-based ads kids and adolescents see.

Beyond the realms of traditional ads there now exists branded marketing embedded within the editorial and entertainment content we watch. Product placement is rife in music videos, movies and TV. Product integration (where talk or use of a product is incorporated into the dialogue or plot) is infiltrating TV shows, giving them all much needed boosts to their production budgets. It’s another reason companies like Netflix or Amazon Prime are attracting high end writers, directors and actors. The quality of shows and movies rises dramatically when the people making them aren’t held to ransom by advertising and sponsorship.

Preliminary research shows that children have a much harder time identifying embedded content as advertising and therefore understanding the persuasive intent behind it. Of course it can be hard to see as adults, so this seems kind of obvious when we are talking about kids. There is very little research in existence so far done on the effects of advertising on children at this time. There is no way of monitoring the practices used to reach children either, making their interests and entertainment up for grabs. What effect will this have on their purchasing power as they grow up? What messages and subtle notions are they being fed and how can they defend themselves against their disingenuous intent?

So how are they sneaking by us?

The advent of internet and social media has driven ads into many different and complicated forms to communicate with kids and teenagers in a language they will not only understand but interact with. Here are just some of the ways they do so:

Promotions: A partnership of sorts where primarily (but not exclusively) food and drink products are tied to popular movies, TV programmes, toys or characters, websites, video games and even theme parks or entertainment venues.

Online advertising: Websites changed the nature of kids adverts fundamentally, creating a need for them to be interactive. The viewer engages with the brand through quizzes, voting or playing a game (63% of kid’s websites include advergaming) often in a fully branded “environment” where the lines between content entertainment and advert are blurred.

Social Media Marketing: This form of advertising truly is based upon the personal. The BBC reported that research done at LSE showed that 43% of 9 – 12 year olds and 88% of 13 – 16 year olds in the UK alone maintained at least one social networking account (even with Facebook technically not allowing under 13’s to have an account). Most brands now focus on social media marketing as their primary focus, getting ‘real life’ people to do the work for them. And it’s not just celebrities. People with large numbers of ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ are paid for product placement. Meaning that the skinny girl on Instagram wearing the latest tiny bikini and sunglasses or the boy currently beating his best score on the latest video game are paid to do so, making product promotion the subtlest and yet most direct it’s ever been.

Companies make both branded and unbranded content for their social media and web sites and their reach extends far. For example, Coca cola, as we write this, has 94,414,305 ‘likes’ on Facebook and McDonalds has 60,896,451 with a total of over 20 million visits to its page. Pepsi Co created “exclusive” live concerts streamed across it’s sites that brought in 250,000 new fans in just one month. Manufacturers encourage celebrities and kids alike to make videos of themselves featuring their products and then upload them to their site – as what can be better to go viral than a peer review for the brand with no production costs?

Online advertising: Websites changed the nature of kids adverts fundamentally, creating a need for them to be interactive. The viewer engages with the brand through quizzes, voting or playing a game (63% of kid’s websites include advergaming) often in a fully branded “environment” where the lines between content entertainment and advert are blurred.

 

Social Media Marketing: This form of advertising truly is based upon the personal. The BBC reported that research done at LSE showed that 43% of 9 – 12 year olds and 88% of 13 – 16 year olds in the UK alone maintained at least one social networking account (even with Facebook technically not allowing under 13’s to have an account). Most brands now focus on social media marketing as their primary focus, getting ‘real life’ people to do the work for them. And it’s not just celebrities. People with large numbers of ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ are paid for product placement. Meaning that the skinny girl on Instagram wearing the latest tiny bikini and sunglasses or the boy currently beating his best score on the latest video game are paid to do so, making product promotion the subtlest and yet most direct it’s ever been.

Companies make both branded and unbranded content for their social media and web sites and their reach extends far. For example, Coca cola, as we write this, has 94,414,305 ‘likes’ on Facebook and McDonalds has 60,896,451 with a total of over 20 million visits to its page. Pepsi Co created “exclusive” live concerts streamed across it’s sites that brought in 250,000 new fans in just one month. Manufacturers encourage celebrities and kids alike to make videos of themselves featuring their products and then upload them to their site – as what can be better to go viral than a peer review for the brand with no production costs?

Mobile Advertising: Another game changer for modern subversive advertising is the use of our mobile phones. People can be reached anytime anywhere and once an app is downloaded it can harvest a lot of significant data about it’s user therefore targeting the advertising right to them. We’ve all experienced this already in one way or another. Change your relationship status to engaged and suddenly all the ads you see are for wedding dresses and diamonds. Post pictures of your wedding and suddenly get targeted for baby clothes and fertility tests. Have a baby and you will be inundated with adverts for weight loss solutions and toy stores. It’s never ending. If they aren’t creepily keeping tabs on your potential Christmas shopping they’re texting you reminders for about-to-end promotions or codes for secret sales. If companies are following you around the virtual world like a blatantly obvious store detective then they’re definitely doing it to our kids, and handing out sweeties in the process. There is a woeful lack of any data on the use of mobile apps by teens and tweens, for example how many have downloaded it, how much time or money they spend on it, what types of apps they have or what level of advertising they are exposed to within them.

After decades of relatively straight forward advertising recent years have seen an onslaught of new media avenues to be exposed to. Integrated marketing campaigns aim messages from every angle at once. A single product can feature Hollywood cross-promotion, TV and print advertising, packaging, product placement and social media content. Interactivity and immersion are the main goal.

We need to be able to teach our kids to recognize the difference between an advert with information and an advert that is selling us something. Explaining the monetary motives of adverts in simple terms i.e.: they want us to buy their product, and then exploring how they do it. What feelings/emotions are they using – do the people look happy or sad? What kinds of emotions would they want us to feel or associate with their products that would make us buy them? What would they not want people to know in case it made them not buy it?

Of course ideally children could by pass adverts entirely but that is becoming increasingly impossible, so it’s important that we are aware of the means they use to reach us and our children. There are glimmers of hope. Let’s hope as time passes the blurred line between advertisements and genuine entertainment or content becomes easier to decipher. Teaching kids to look critically at things online and TV will empower them to be smart digital citizens and eventually smart societal ones as well.

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