“Why can’t we eat Kornee Krunch? The TV said it’s a complete breakfast that moms trust!”
“I want the purple hand sanitizer with sparkles that smells like princess perfume!”
Every parent hears something like this eventually. No matter how hard you try to protect your kids from aggressive marketing and get them accustomed to wholesome, frugal ways of eating and living, at some point every child will spot some consumer product that seems so appealing they just can’t stop thinking about it!
You patiently explain the very good, scientific, moral reasons why your family doesn’t buy that thing, but the kids keep whining and arguing that everyone else has it; you apparently just don’t understand how amazing it is; it’s the only thing they need to turn their lives from poverty to awesomeness (until next week); you’re just being so mean!!
It’s really annoying when kids nag you to buy things that violate your principles! After all, you’ve given a lot of thought to how to live and what to buy. You’re an experienced adult. You earn the money; you make the purchasing decisions. You’re the parent, for gosh sake, and they shouldn’t be so defiant and disrespectful!
What’s really happening here is not that the kids have quit listening but that they’ve expanded their listening. As they grow, they naturally begin to seek information from the wider world, not just their parents.
Your messages compete with the messages they get from advertising, peers, store displays, media characters, and other adults like teachers and coaches who do things differently than you do. They naturally wonder what it would be like to try new and different things.
You could keep insisting that your messages are more important than all the others–good luck!–or you can teach your kids the critical thinking skills that help them decide who’s right and why.
After all, you won’t always be there to tell them which toothpaste is best. Someday, your grown-up child will be confronted with the option of some newly invented technology that’s new to you, too, and you want them to be just as equipped to evaluate it as you are.
Teaching Kids to be Conscious Consumers
Kids need to learn critical thinking and “detective skills” so they aren’t swayed by slick marketing and/or peer pressure. Channel their growing intelligence and spending power toward the thoughtful separation of the objective facts from the emotional, aesthetic, and social messages connected to things we can buy.
Kids are listening–but not only to people who have their best interests at heart! Rather than insist that they do as we say because we say so, we need to teach them how to make informed choices for themselves.
Start by encouraging them to share their own observations. Identifying what they already know, and figuring out some of what’s really going on, help kids feel clever! Guide them through some of that before you start explaining things you know.
For example, if your family participated in a community running event, you probably got T-shirts with corporate logos all over them. Look at the shirt with your kids. “Do you recognize that sign?… Yes, that’s Huge Hippo supermarket. Now, what did they have to do with the run?… Right, they had a tent with a Huge Hippo sign, giving out free apples. Why did they do that?… Because apples are a healthy snack after exercising, yes. They gave us free snacks while showing us their sign. They want us to think, ‘Huge Hippo did something kind, so I like Huge Hippo and I will buy my groceries there.’ Is that a good reason?”
Now, the interesting (and tricky!) thing about this is that some marketing efforts actually reflect positive aspects of a business or product that you want to support, but you still need to be aware of the marketing tactic. And sometimes the situation is more nuanced: “I like how Huge Hippo helped with the race, but Huge Hippo pays the people who work in their stores the very smallest amount of money that’s allowed. People who work hard all week lifting groceries off trucks and lining them up on shelves at Huge Hippo don’t make enough money to buy food for their own families! When we spend money in their stores, the owner of Huge Hippo keeps most of the money for himself instead of paying his workers more!”
You might think economic issues and workers’ rights are too abstract for children, but most kids spot unfairness easily and know it is wrong! They’ll likely conclude that the Huge Hippo-crite ought to give those apples to his workers instead of using them to buy community loyalty! And the next time they’re offered a freebie, they’ll look for the invisible strings attached.
Encourage your kids to be alert thinkers who can “catch” a company doing something sneaky and see right through it, focusing on the factors that are really relevant to their purchasing decisions. Guide them toward ideas like, “Just because a store’s logo is on the free healthy snacks doesn’t mean everything about that store is good.”
Your kids won’t always draw the same conclusions you do. Sometimes that’s because their cognitive skills are still developing, and sometimes it’s because they just have a different opinion about which factors are most important in a specific decision.
Once in a while, they actually have some information you don’t, and if you watch that video they found on YouTube and do some research to confirm what it says, you might find out that you were wrong and the kids were right! Make sure to appreciate that learning experience and praise the kids’ shrewd thinking!
Check Out “The Checkout”!
When my son was around 12 years old, he found the Australian TV series “The Checkout” on YouTube. Produced from 2013 to 2018, “The Checkout” uses humor to teach critical thinking about advertising, packaging, retail strategies, and consumer attitudes.
Although some of the details are specific to Australia, the underlying lessons apply everywhere! Because the series is aimed at adults and Australian TV allows some language not used on American TV, you might not want to let kids browse these videos unsupervised–but here are some that are “clean,” informative, and understandable even to my daughter who just turned 6.
- “***** WARS” uses Star Wars imagery to explain an improved nutrition labeling system Australia began to implement–and how it was foiled by the Dark Side. Those of us in other countries can think about how our labels could be more helpful.
- “Snack Break: Dairy Farmer’s Yoghurt” shows a man who thinks he’s going to cut back on sugar by putting fruit-flavored, fat-free yogurt on his cereal instead. He keeps underestimating how much sugar is in that little cup of yogurt. Wait ’til you see what he substitutes instead!
- “Get Ripped Off” explains (to a silly guy in a muscle suit) why protein powders, shakes, and bars aren’t as good for you as a balanced diet of whole food.
- “The Future Is Stupid” is a funny yet scathing analysis of how a high-tech toy measures up to an ordinary ball. (We’d never heard of this toy and wanted to see how it had been advertised–here’s the launch video for Play Impossible Gameball.)
- “Springs to Mind” depicts a man whose nap in a mattress store turns into a hilarious dream-journey emphasizing a startling fact about how mattress retailers purposely confuse customers. Kids may not be buying their own mattresses, but they can understand that this is an unfair trick, while also enjoying the silly story.
- “As a Guilty Mum: Health Products” parodies all those commercials that imply good mothers use the product. Guilty Mum smugly touts the virtues of nutritional supplements while her little boy reads the fine print and points out that a product “does not contain foods shown” and will give him six times the sugar he should eat in a whole day!
- “Serving Size Me” explains the difficulty of comparing nutrition among foods whose serving size is different. Although there’s been some effort to standardize serving sizes in the United States, we’re not there yet, so this is an important caution when you’re seeking low sugar, high fiber, etc. [NOTE: This video includes part of a soup ad for the “fully loaded man with balls of meat.” If that doesn’t offend you, it can spark discussion of how incredibly silly it is to market the same soup in different labels to men and women!]
- “Online Reviews” can give helpful information from real purchasers of the product–but this segment explains various ways reviews might be manipulated to make a product look better or worse than it really is, and why it’s risky just to look at the average number of stars a product got, without reading the reviews.
Videos like these are great for elementary and middle-school kids who find fast-paced videos much cooler than their parents’ explanations! Ideally, though, you’ll start teaching your kids to resist the lure of advertising and peer pressure at an earlier age.
How do You Explain Marketing to a Child?
What are ads? People who are selling things use ads to tell us how we can buy these things if we want to. Of course, ads are designed to try to talk us into wanting to buy the things, because people selling things want to make money. Sellers pay for the ads, and that money helps pay for the content to which the ad is attached–it costs money to make videos, and it’s convenient that we can watch some videos without paying for them, but that’s why the ads are there.
Point out to preschoolers which parts are ads in a video, a webpage, a printed page, signs along the road, or whatever you see together. It isn’t as obvious as you may think, particularly in newer media where the lines between ads and content are ever blurrier.
There’s a basic, wholesome concept underlying advertising, which is easy to understand if you look at local people’s ads offering used furniture and so forth. The seller describes the good features of the product. Potential buyers read the ad and think about what questions we have: “The couch is green and 62 inches long, but how tall is it? We’d want it to fit under our windowsill….” Important details might be left out of the ad just accidentally.
But some advertisers carefully choose their words and images to entice you into buying things you don’t really need. Grab some random ads and discuss them with your kid–try a parenting magazine or the coupon supplement from a Sunday newspaper, something with a variety of products being advertised to adults. (Kids may have an easier time recognizing manipulative tactics directed at someone else than those that influence their own feelings.)
Teach kids to ask themselves three questions about an ad:
- What is it selling?
- What are the facts?
- What else is happening here? Look for emotional messages in the images or words.
For example, we recently saw an ad whose text says only, “feel good about saving,” and it has a coupon for almonds. It’s selling almonds. The facts–well, we know what almonds are, and we can see these are available salted or unsalted. The photo shows an open packet of almonds on top of a graph-paper notebook with an apple, grapes, and two pink exercise weights–what do they want us to think? Must be something like, “If I eat almonds and fruit, and I exercise, I’ll get healthier and more organized, and I will make a graph of my progress!” And maybe the pink weights mean this ad is aimed at girls especially.
Do girls feel good when we save money, eat healthy snacks, exercise, and draw graphs? Yeah! But that doesn’t mean we need this brand of almonds to do it. We’d check if they have any questionable additives, and compare the price (after coupon) to the price of other almonds before we’d buy.
I tell kids that marketing is always trying to talk us into buying a product, sometimes using deceptive or manipulative strategies, so we want to be alert and think carefully about our choices. Make it a challenge to outsmart those money-grabbers by wielding our own set of super strategies! Here are some that work for me.
“Look at this ad!”
When you spot something misleading, show it to the kids and talk about what it’s trying to trick you into believing vs. what’s true.
One of the most common tricks in print advertising is the asterisk. I’ve taught my kids to “look for the little star” and read the details printed in tiny, barely-visible print at the bottom of the ad. Here are just a few examples from last Sunday’s coupon packet:
- “Kills 99.9% of germs!” . . . “on hard, non-porous surfaces.” Funny how they show it being used on plank flooring, with all those grooves.
- “Transforms natural essential oils into mist” . . . well, actually, the product contains natural essential oils and also, um, some other stuff; they’re not saying what!
- “America’s #1 panko” . . . based on analysis so carefully arranged that it required 45 words of explanation.
Another common trick is the “serving suggestion” depicting the product as an ingredient in an appealing, balanced meal. How’d you like a chicken-salad sandwich with dried cranberries and fresh spinach on wholegrain bread? Yum! But that’s not what you’ll get if you buy canned chicken; you’d need a bunch of other ingredients, and hey, maybe you’d rather not use canned chicken with a lot of added salt, sodium phosphates, and modified food starch.
There isn’t always fine print to explain that the product does not include all the stuff shown along with it. For example, my daughter recently asked me to buy some body-wash because she wanted the cute bath toys depicted alongside it. But those toys don’t come with the body-wash; they’re just props (like the soap suds and stack of colorful washcloths) to show that this product is for kids taking a bath. I’ll keep in mind that my kid would like a cute purple walrus bath toy, but this ad doesn’t tell us where to get that.
Show kids how any media–not just advertising but the content itself–may be subtly encouraging us to buy something. Heck, you can even use Kitchen Stewardship as an example! Bloggers often link to products they use and love to nudge readers towards those brands.
Buying a product because someone online recommended it isn’t inherently a bad idea. But it’s important to realize what influenced your purchase and make sure you’re okay with that. Don’t just think, “Katie linked to this hand sanitizer, so it must be the best!” Read the details to make sure it has the features you want in a hand sanitizer and none of the junk you want to avoid–and please don’t hoard hand sanitizer during a pandemic! Buy now only if you’re running low.
Teaching Kids to Make Smart Choices
Just because a product pretends to be healthier than the competition doesn’t mean it really is. Reading Nutrition Facts and ingredient lists can be very enlightening, as my Girl Scout troop learned on our supermarket field trip. Here’s a guide to the US Nutrition Facts label and how to use it.
When we can’t visit the store–or when we’re planning ahead to minimize time in the store–we can seek out product information online. Amazon usually makes the ingredients and Nutrition Facts information available by including photos of the back of the label, and the “important information” section of the page may include the ingredient list–but for some products, that list is clearly incomplete and/or there’s no rear-view photo. Many supermarket websites offer less detail than Amazon. The manufacturer’s website is a better bet for ingredients and at least some nutritional information, if not the full Nutrition Facts label.
There are so many things in the world that we could buy, but we use our smart shopper skills to focus on foods that are good for our bodies, useful things that we’ll enjoy having, well-made things that are a good value for the money.
I can hardly believe I had to explain this to my 6-year-old, but food coloring does not make food better!! We saw an ad for sandwich cookies with red, white, and blue frosting patties, and she got all excited about wanting “American cookies” to celebrate Independence Day.
Aargh, no, that’s American food at its worst! Artificial food dyes may affect behavior, cause cancer, and disrupt endocrine function–and at best, they’re unnecessary! (Furthermore, this product had the American flag stamped on the cookie. We do not eat our flag. That’s not patriotic or respectful. Honestly, why do I even have to say that?!)
Speaking of unnecessary, we saw an ad headlined, “Try our mascara must-haves!” Well, I don’t own any mascara; it isn’t a thing I must have! When I did use mascara, in high school, I never owned more than one tube at a time; I didn’t need four varieties!
My daughter pointed out that the ad only showed the tubes and wands, and we could just barely see differences in the shapes of the wands; “If they showed four eyes wearing the different kinds, maybe we could see the difference.” Yes, that is the information we would need to choose our eyelash style if we weren’t satisfied with our natural eyelashes, which we are. This ad wants me to think my eyelashes must not be good enough. Ridiculous!
Comparison Shopping: The Best Way to Get What You Want
Your kid wants rainbow unicorn pajamas? Explain and demonstrate how to do a web search. At first, we’ll see lots of choices, but we are not going to make an impulsive decision! There are many things to think about:
- If you’re avoiding flame-retardant chemicals, narrow your search from the get-go by using “cotton” as a keyword.
- Have a price ceiling in mind, and don’t even click on options that cost more than you can pay.
- Look carefully at the garment design, trying to choose something that will be comfortable. Do you want stretchy pajamas with no buttons, or would you consider flannel? Long or short sleeves?
- Is it available in your size? Measure to make sure you’re choosing the right size.
- Toss out any that you just don’t like because the unicorns are making yucky faces, the background is an unpleasant color, etc.
- What do reviewers say, and do they sound like real people or fake reviews? Reading reviews can make you aware of issues you hadn’t considered, like whether there’s a seam on the outside of the leg that might dig into you if you sleep on your side.
- Look for socially responsible options like pajamas made by a local small business, made of organic cotton, or fair-trade certified.
- Now look at the price, extra costs, and discounts. Don’t forget shipping charges! Choose the least expensive option that will work for you. Sometimes there’s a compromise when you pay a little extra for the more socially responsible product or the prettier unicorns.
Emphasize the excitement of getting a good deal on a good product! All this searching and thinking pays off when you get cute, comfy pajamas that make you happy and last long enough to hand down to your cousin!
I find that my kids get very excited as they look at the options, and there’s usually a stage of acting greedy and wanting more things than we agreed to buy–but as we keep winnowing down the options, they appreciate that I’m paying so much attention to finding them just the right thing. Usually, they’re very happy with what they get in the end.
Comparison shopping is a great tool for buying food and other consumable goods, too. Getting the best price is important for things you buy repeatedly because those savings add up over time.
When a product is available in multiple sizes, which is the best value for your money? Many stores have shelf tags that tell you the price per ounce, per pound, or per individual item–the “unit price.” The lowest unit price is the best value unless it gives you more than you can use! If applesauce is $3 for 30 ounces (10c/oz) or $7.25 for 120 ounces (6c/oz), but you’ll only eat 60 ounces before you’re tired of applesauce and it gets moldy . . . either buy the 30-ounce size or scoop half of the 60-ounce into a freezer container and then thaw it next time you want applesauce!
Sometimes the “weird” brand is just as good as the one you’ve seen advertised; other times it isn’t. Buy the cheapest brand and give it a try! You could even do a blind taste test comparing two or more brands–check out my Girl Scout troop’s cereal and applesauce test and my family’s chewing gum brand comparison. If you shop at ALDI, where most of the products are house brands, put them up against the advertised national brands and see if your family members can tell the difference!
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Seeing Through the Sneaky Strategies
Watch the sidebar ads as you guide your child through online shopping. On many sites, the ads are influenced (using cookies) by the things we recently viewed on the Web.
For example, if I look at Kitchen Stewardship right now, I see ads for the Honda Acura car, Hanna Andersson clothing, and Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil “available at Target.” Well, my daughter and I looked at Hanna Andersson last week when we were shopping for summer nightgowns. I rarely buy aluminum foil–and when I do, I get the foil that’s made from recycled aluminum–but I’ve been making more of my Target runs online than in person lately. I’m not sure why my computer thinks I want a new car, though….
In-person shopping can lead to targeted advertising, too. We use our loyalty card at CVS, and the receipt spits out a long string of coupons, some of which are for things similar to what we’ve bought at CVS in the past. Other stores send coupons in the mail or via their app. Stores offer discounts on things we’ve bought before to encourage us to keep spending our money there.
That’s not a problem–we’re saving money on things we would’ve bought anyway! But they also offer deals on things we might want, trying to guess what somebody like us can be enticed to buy if the price is right. That may lead us to spend more money at that store, either buying things there that we’d normally buy elsewhere or trying products we normally don’t buy at all.
Gendered marketing is a sneaky way to sell more stuff by getting families to buy different versions of the same product for sister, brother, mom, and dad–and then the stuff might go bad before one person can use up the whole package, so you’ll end up buying more. Point out to kids that we can all use the same soap, we can share the toys, and so forth. There are really only a few kinds of products that need to be different for male and female bodies.
Greenwashing makes a product seem like it’s good for the environment when it really isn’t. Express to your kids your disappointment when you buy organic fig bars in a recycled-cardboard box, only to find three layers of plastic inside the box! When you’re about to grab a cleanser with green leaves on the label, read the fine print to see if it’s really made from plants or just the same old petroleum distillates in a “recyclable” bottle.
And how about those foods that act all healthy when they aren’t? A beige bag of crunchy snacks with “a full serving of vegetables” isn’t necessarily any better than a silver bag of potato chips–after all, potatoes are a vegetable! Ingredients like “dehydrated broccoli powder” don’t do much for our bodies, especially when only trace amounts of them are used in creating a heavily-processed food-like substance. Let’s read the label and see if this snack has anything like the vitamins and fiber of unprocessed vegetables.
RELATED: Teaching kids to read nutrition labels.
Lead by Example to Teach Kids Values
Your kids will learn from your choices and your explanations. Think out loud about what to buy and why. They’ll still whine for (or buy for themselves) dumb things sometimes…or the thing that seemed like the best deal will turn out to be inferior…so talk through how we learn from these experiences. I bet you have some of your own to share!
There may be times when your preteen, teen, or young adult offspring actively resist your values, bragging that they aren’t nervous nellies who fret about every decision and count their pennies; they’ve got all the cool stuff! When they’re spending their own money, let it go.
Maybe even give your kid the $50 you would have spent on sneakers and let him put in the extra $40 to get the kind he thinks are so much better. Let kids experiment with different products and experiences to learn what they really value.
Conscientious consumer skills are a lot like healthy eating habits: When you build a strong foundation from an early age, kids are able to pick up those skills again any time they want, even if they abandoned them for a while. In the long run, they’re likely to turn out a lot like their parents and to laugh over the pea-brained decisions they made when they were younger!