Christian Parenting and Family Resources with Biblical Principles

Our biggest sale! 50% off your PLUS subscription. Use code SUMMER

Understanding How Marketers Target Your Children

  • Rebecca Hagelin Author, 30 Ways in 30 Days to Save Your Family
  • Updated Apr 07, 2009
Understanding How Marketers Target Your Children

Today’s kids are the most marketed-to generation in history. They spend an estimated $200 billion a year of their own money so they are very profitable targets for exploitation and manipulation. Combine this with the frequently manifested modern parental desire to be their children’s friend, and you can see why marketers compete like never before for the attention of these sophomoric spenders.

So fierce is the competition for their cash that modern marketing techniques have become, in many cases, insidiously evil. Selling to tweens isn’t about finding out what they want—it’s about figuring out how to manipulate their minds.

Sex sells, and is a staple of today’s marketing campaigns. However, many of the highly sexualized campaigns today are targeted at children. They sell empty promises of sexual power, every kind of sexual perversion, and a crude incivility in entertainment programming, as well as specific products.

MTV and others have become experts at feeding the raging hormones, edginess, and roller-coaster emotions of our youth, producing highly titillating material that ignites their adrenaline and leaves them begging for more. Instead of helping our sons and daughters positively approach and channel their sexuality and their developing understanding of decency and civility, the entertainment world pours gasoline on youthful passions and confusion.

Plainly put, our kids are being used.

To understand why—and how—marketers target them, consider these facts, courtesy of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood:

■ Children under 14 spend about $40 billion annually. Compare this to the $6.1 billion those between the ages of 4–12 spent in 1989. Teens spend about $159 billion.

■ Children under 12 influence $500 billion in purchases per year.

■ This generation of children is the most brand-conscious ever. Teens between 13 and 17 have 145 conversations about brands per week, about twice as many as adults.

■ Companies spend about $17 billion annually marketing to children, a staggering increase from the $100 million spent in 1983.

■ Children ages 2–11 see more than 25,000 advertisements a year on TV alone, a figure that does not include product placement (showing a character drinking a Coke, for ex-ample). They are also targeted with advertising on the Internet, cell phones, mp3 players, video games, school buses, and in school.

■ Almost every major media program for children has a line of licensed merchandise including food, toys, clothing, and accessories. Brand-licensed toys accounted for $22.3 billion in 2006.

■ In their effort to establish cradle-to-grave brand loyalty and promote nagging, marketers even target babies through licensed toys and accessories featuring media characters.

■ Viral marketing techniques take advantage of children’s friendships by encouraging them to promote products to their peers.

As the National Institute on Media and the Family notes, when it comes to marketing to kids, the old equation has been turned on its head. Years ago, marketers would reach out to parents to get the kids. Today, they can go directly to the kids. Of course, that makes their job easier because children are certainly less discriminating and skeptical than adults, and therefore easier to persuade. As the cliché goes, “follow the money.” That’s exactly what marketers have done—and the easiest path is the one through your child’s pocket.

What makes this all the more disturbing is the content of their messages. At best, marketers breed a highly materialistic view of life, leading kids to believe that happiness can be found in a line of stylish new clothes, the latest “hot” music, or an exciting new toy. But as the luster fades with the most recent acquisition, the desire for another new thrill takes its place. The temptation to be up-to-date with friends and classmates induces many kids (and many willing parents) to live beyond their means, trapping themselves in a spiritually empty cycle of “buy now, pay later” as they frantically try to keep up with the latest and greatest.

Worse is the trashy content in many ads and TV shows. To appear to be cutting edge, companies apparently see no choice but to lower standards, and to feed us crass images of sexuality and rebellion. As an executive from the WB network told PBS, “Teens are consumed with sex. It’s all around them. If you’re going to reach them, you have to talk about it.”…

Today’s media has made an industry out of studying your kids. It’s time to know what they know about your sons and daughters, and then teach your kids how not to become a pawn in the name of greed.

Learn about the forces arrayed against you and arm your kids with the truth. Read The Marketing of Evil: How Radicals, Elitists, and Pseudo-Experts Sell Us Corruption Disguised As Freedom by David Kupelian, the managing editor of Today’s youth are under tremendous pressure to conform to the value system of those who are selling them short of the best they can become—but we can’t protect them if we don’t know how they are doing it.

And we’ve got to do more than just know it. We’ve got to teach our children about marketing techniques and instill sound values in their hearts along with the will to stand up against those who would use them. If we take the time and energy to equip our sons and daughters, then when they are confronted with damaging, clever marketing messages, they will recognize them and know how to reject them.  

One way to counteract the effect of advertising is to help your kids dissect it. That’s the advice of Bob Smithouser, an editor with Focus on the Family’s Plugged In Online ( “Are your young people savvy enough to spend wisely?” he writes:

 Here are questions you can ask teens as you dissect advertising:

❏ What is the sponsor really selling, the product itself or just an image connected with the product?

❏ Is this ad trying to exploit a human weakness such as vanity, lust, greed, pride, envy, or a desperate need to be accepted by others?

❏ What’s the catch? Is there fine print or a hidden disclaimer that exposes this as an offer that really is too good to be true?

❏ Why do some ads want customers to “buy now, pay later”? What will that cost in the long run?

❏ Do I really need this product, or is the sponsor just trying to create a need for this product? People are constantly being made to feel insecure about bad breath, impending baldness, or the devastation of a dropped cell phone call. And for every manufactured fear, there’s a product or service waiting to restore calm.

❏ What information is conveniently left out of this commercial message? For example, beyond the sticker price, certain vehicles cost more to insure and maintain than basic transportation.

The good news is that, as the Kaiser Family Foundation has reported, kids say their parents have tremendous influence on them. When children and teens face problems or questions, they are more likely to go to Mom or Dad first for advice and help if the parent has previously taken the initiative to talk to and teach their children about difficult issues.

The question is what kind of influence are you having on your children?

When you ignore or pretend you don’t see unhealthy, immoral, or just plain tacky and cheap messages, your child interprets your silence as an endorsement of the material. When you mindlessly plunk down sixty bucks for the latest video game, or give your ten-year-old the cash to buy clothes that make her look like a street-walker, you’re part of the problem.

Don’t walk silently past that Victoria’s Secret display at your local mall. Tell your kids why it’s wrong. Ask your children pointed questions about the TV shows and movies that interest them. Find out what they think—so you can spark discussions that will give you a chance to tell them what you think—and why.

Rebecca Hagelin is a media commentator, public speaker on family and the culture, and the author of, "Home Invasion: Protecting Your Family in a Culture That's Gone Stark Raving Mad." To learn more about her book or to invite Rebecca to speak at your event, visit or e-mail her at Rebecca's next book, "30 Ways in 30 Days to
Save Your Family" will be released by Regnery on April 6.