The Nag Factor
Are children the marketer’s vehicle to adult pockets? Whether in print, digital or on TV, advertisements are part of our daily lives. As adults with purchasing power, there comes a time when we are swayed by any one of these ads to spend our money, and whether or not the investment is wise is usually a toss-up. If the advertisement is packaged well enough, members of the target audience are convinced that they need this product or service – but sometimes they aren’t. The ad may be perfect, but most adults are fully aware of when they are being sold something, and choose not to bite. Children, on the other hand, don’t have a clue. It should come as no surprise that kids are dazzled by clever marketing and will wear down their parents to buy something that they’d otherwise never purchase.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), studies show that commercial exposure has a profound effect on the preferences of children – just one instance of exposure is enough to plant the preference, and repeated exposure strengthens it. Additionally, child attitudes toward certain brands, such as those of the tobacco and alcohol industry, were shown to be favorable due to the use of animal mascots in ads. While no parent is buying their child cigarettes and an ice cold beer, it’s possible that these advertisements leave an imprint so deep that the child will grow older and experiment with these products the first chance they get.
Children are unable to comprehend that the intention of an advertisement is to get them (aka their parents) to buy something. They see something that appeals to their interests, or to that of their friends, and immediately wish to have it. Kids don’t have the cognitive skills to know when they’re being sold something, and it raises the question of whether or not it’s ethical to advertise to children.
Research on the fairness of advertising to kids goes all the way back to the 1960s, according to the APA. In the 1970s, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed that advertising to children be banned, Congress threatened to cut the agency’s funding. The ad industry itself has developed its own set of regulations; however, said regulations are vague and non-enforced.
Aside from television, little is known about the impact of ads that come from other mediums, the internet being most notable. What is known is that advertisements heavily contribute to what is known as “pester power” or “the nag factor”. The Cambridge Dictionary describes pester power as a child’s ability to ask a parent to buy something so many times until the parents cave in. Almost everyone has either experienced or witnessed a child in a store having a meltdown because their request for something on the shelf was denied. This is not to say that advertisements are solely to blame for children’s troubled behavior, but the appeal of advertisements, in conjunction with the pressure to fit in with or impress friends, tends to overwhelm children who in turn strain their parents.
The run of a successful ad campaign takes more intellect, wit and enthusiasm (just to name a few) than anyone with no knowledge of the craft could understand. However, advertisers should be compelled to analyze and assess the implications of their work, especially when the campaign involves children. The foundation of advertising is understanding how people think and behave. Not only should the mind of a child be regarded as precious, stress and financial strain on parents as direct results of hyper-consumerism must be empathized with. Family dynamics and child behavior are ultimately the responsibility of the parents themselves, but the power of marketing among people across the age spectrum can’t be denied. While the advertising industry can’t take all the blame, it can set and enforce clear guidelines so that all advertisers can prosper in the career that they love with as much integrity as possible.