Children's television, like all programming, is inundated with advertisements. According to one study, "children between the ages of 6 and 14 watch about 25 hours of television per week and are exposed to as many as 20,000 commercials in a single year," (Moore and Lutz). Advertising aimed at children sells a wide range of products, from packaged foods to fast foods, from toys to movies. Animated characters, mascot animals, celebrities, and child actors all tout products for kids. In general, children react to the ads they see in similar ways that adults do: by subconsciously absorbing sensory data such as slogans or jingles and by associating certain emotional responses with certain products. However, children, especially young children, do not possess cognitive skills sufficient to fully understand the impact of advertising on their impulses. When children approach puberty and adolescence, they are better able to critically examine advertising, but only do so when prompted, not on their own (Moore and Lutz). For the purposes of this project I interviewed three children about the ads they had recently seen on television, asking them to recall as many as possible. Of the three children selected, one was a five-year-old boy, one was a nine-year-old girl, and one was a twelve-year-old girl. All said they watched at least two hours of television per day. These interviews reveal some of the ways that children react to what they see and hear on television.
Imagery in the commercials recalled by all three children included real-life family situations; movie trailers; and trailers for television shows. All three children recalled viewed McDonald's commercials, which touted Happy Meal stuffed toys using the "I'm lovin' it" ad campaign. All three children could sing a few bars of the McDonald's jingle as well as several other advertising tunes. Several toy commercials were recalled, including one for giant bubble-makers. Of the movie trailers watched by the three children, one was for the new film The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and one was for a DVD of the film Lemony Snickets. All children noted seeing commercials for other television shows, especially on the Cartoon Network. All three children reported enjoying commercials by directly stating, "I like ... " Especially the five and nine-year-olds referred to television commercials as if they were familiar shows. In fact, "I really like the one where ... " was a frequent phrase used by all three children. However, all the children were able to distinguish between the commercials and the television shows they watched, including the five-year-old.
Based on the reactions of these three children, television commercials stimulate the consumer instinct and create brand awareness. "I want" frequently peppered our conversations about the products that the kids had recently seen advertised on television. The five-year-old was particularly attracted to McDonald's, and while he hummed the "I'm Lovin' It" jingle, referred to getting Happy Meals at least twice during the course of the interview. The five-year-old also rattled off several of the toys he had acquired in some of the Happy Meals he had bought in the past. "I got this, and this," he said, handing me some small figurines. "This time it's stuffed toys," he said enthusiastically. "McDonald's is putting stuffed toys inside the Happy Meal!" When asked what other commercials he saw, the five-year-old hesitated and then said, "Oh! Oh! I want the Darth Vader!" When I asked him if it was an action figure, he said no, that it was a mask. The five-year-old then began making Darth Vader breathing noises. I asked if he liked Star Wars and he smiled and jumped up and down and said "Oh, yes!" With his consumer appetite thus stimulated, I then asked the five-year-old if he had seen anything else he wanted on TV. He gave me a fairly long list of items, but noted which ones he wanted and which ones he didn't. Some of the toys he had seen on the commercial were "for girls." I asked how he knew that the toy was for girls and he wasn't fully able to articulate his response. The boy simply said repeated that such-and-such a product was for girls. However, it was unclear whether the commercial influenced the boy's concept of gender or whether his concepts of gender had already been instilled from other environmental factors.
Occasionally the five-year-old boy would say, "I don't like ... " referring to a specific toy or to a specific cartoon image. Based on the interview, I concluded that while advertising to children does whet the consumer appetite, even children as young as five-years old make clear distinctions between what they want and don't want. All three children had strong opinions about some of the products they saw advertised, and little trouble expressing an aversion to certain foods or products that they had seen on television. As expected, the twelve-year-old was the most critically aware of commercial content and was the only one of the three to also have strong opinions about the commercials themselves. For example, regarding the commercials for the film The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the twelve-year-old girl told me, "I like this commercial," for one of the trailers, and later said, "Oh, this is another commercial for that movie but I like the other one better." When I asked why, the girl said, "I don't know, I think this one is stupid."
Advertising does create awareness of products that the kids might not have otherwise known about. The nine-year-old, for example, said, "Oh, oh, I want the Barbie radio!" When I asked her if any of her friends had the product she said no, that she just saw it on television. Wanting was expressed linguistically and straightforwardly by all three children: all three used simple language to convey that they coveted or craved items they had seen on television. Even negative responses to television commercials were expressed through language of "wanting." A few of the three children used the word "need" in conjunction with what they had seen on television, except for the nine-year-old who said that she "needed" some accessory toys for her doll, but not because she had seen them in a commercial. The twelve-year-old, when talking about the Play Station commercials she had seen said that she "needed" to get a new game console because hers was old.
Moreover, advertising draws children's attention away from those items or products that are not advertised on television. I mentioned a few uncommon toys, games, and software I had seen in stores or knew existed, and all three children shook their heads at those mentioned and did not seem interested in finding out what they were. "I don't know what that is," the five-year-old once said to a product that I mentioned and almost seemed disdainful of it based on the tone of his voice. Similarly, the nine-year-old girl said "Huh?" when I asked her about some toys I knew about but that weren't common. Therefore, the presence of a product on television makes the item seem more "real" for children than if they just see it on the shelf of a store. When they spoke about items they saw on television, the kids grew highly energetic and enthusiastic in their tone of voice and their word choices reflected positive, affirmative views of products. It is as if their favorite shows become powerful endorsers of the products that are sold, which underscores the importance of providing tasteful advertising for children.
Cereals and other packaged food items made a huge impact on all three children. All three of them mentioned many food products and even if they didn't like the food product they expressed intimate familiarity with the related commercials. For example, the nine-year-old was a vegetarian because both her parents were vegetarian. When she talked about the McDonald's commercials, she sang along with the "I'm lovin' it" song. I asked her if she liked the McDonald's commercial and she said, "I guess so. We don't' eat at McDonald's but all my friends do." The nine-year-old and twelve-year-old were more familiar with commercials targeted at adult audiences than the five-year-old, who watched mostly children's programming. The nine- and twelve-year-olds had therefore also recently seen commercials for cars, beers, and other items aimed at adult consumers. When I tried to ascertain their reactions to these commercials, it was difficult to solicit clear responses. Nevertheless, the twelve-year-old expressed some critical thinking related to gender roles in a beer commercial. Especially as a young girl, she was aware of the ways that women were portrayed in commercials. She said, "Oh, all the girls in this commercial are pretty."
To discover how gender and race were construed in the commercials, I asked all three children about their reactions to television commercials to try to ascertain if they received messages about stereotypes or norms. The five-year-old boy and nine-year-old girl differentiated between boys' and girls' toys more than the twelve-year-old. The five-year-old boy referred to dolls as "for girls" and when…