Before birthdays and holidays, many kids make wish lists. But how do they know what they want? Sometimes parents can trace a child’s desires back to a TV show, a friend or even a celebrity. Today, it’s likely that the longings of your child or teen are being shaped by experiences they have online, in settings parents rarely visit.

Online ad tactics

Online, where content is usually free, ads are everywhere. Because companies know people pay little attention to pop-ups and banner ads, they’ve become creative about inserting their messages into content. As a result, in a process much like catching a cold, children develop an awareness of, and even a craving for, various foods, clothes and other products without knowing how or why. Here are some of the tactics being used to influence your kids:

  • Advergames. It’s easy to insert product logos and mascots into arcade-style games. The more the child plays, the more he or she is exposed to the brand.   
  • Freebies. Web sites routinely offer kids free wallpaper, ring tones, smilies and other goodies that just happen to incorporate the company’s name or logos. Many companies also harvest information about kids and their interests by getting them to sign up for sweepstakes and other contests.   
  • Social networks. The square hamburger sold by Wendy’s has its own MySpace page, where people actually post comments about what they eat at Wendy’s and why. So, for that matter, does Coors Light. Advertisers believe getting young people to interact with a brand as a personality makes them gravitate toward that product when it’s time to buy.
  • Buzz marketing. Companies give preferred customers freebies or, in some cases, cash in the hope that they will talk about a product with their friends. Young children, for example, might be encouraged to send buddies a funny e-card that includes product images.  
  • Mobile marketing. More and more companies are sending text ads to cell phones.  Soon these will be triggered by specific places, so a teen walking past a record store will get a message about a CD that’s on sale.  
  • Virtual worlds. In virtual worlds, kids can create alter egos called avatars and then wander around having virtual experiences. Even on kid-friendly sites, such as Whyville, many of these experiences are designed by corporations eager to sell things to the person behind the avatar.

This kind of advertising isn’t easily supervised by parents. That’s one of the reasons these settings are so appealing to advertisers. They know they can sell directly to kids who don’t have the skepticism or critical-thinking capabilities of adults.    

Unfortunately, this early immersion in commercial messages isn’t good for our kids, our culture or even our planet. Without adult intervention, kids find themselves craving things that are unnecessary or even unhealthy. They begin to define themselves in terms of what they have rather than what they can do or what kind of people they are. And they are drawn into the wastefulness that makes Americans consume five times more energy than other people on the planet.

What can you do?

So what can parents do to inoculate their children? First, think about your own values.  The premise of advertising is that life will be better (or even perfect) if only you buy this product. Wise adults know happiness can’t be purchased. Genuine human contentment comes, not from consuming, but from creating, communicating, competing and connecting. Make those activities the focus of life in your family, especially around gift-giving holidays. Instead of one-trick toys and gadgets they won’t use, consider giving your child materials that stimulate creativity and imagination or experiences that enrich his or her sense of life’s possibilities.    

Second, encourage skepticism and critical thinking. Most kids now know the person on the other end of online communication could be a sexual predator. They are less likely to suspect a shill who is being paid to tell them how cool a particular product is. Ask kids to track back to how they heard about a new product. Where did their positive feelings come from? Why do they believe the promises about the product?

Third, talk about consuming mistakes. Many kids have rooms crammed with stuff that seemed urgently important — until they got it. When products don’t live up to expectation, talk about the discrepancy between promise and reality. This lesson is, perhaps, best learned when children spend their own money on something that seems oh so cool — until they actually own it.   

Fourth, get involved. It can feel lonely when you seem to be the only parent on the planet saying “no” to a child’s fervent wishes. To find allies, head to the Web site for the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (, an organization that supports “the rights of children to grow up — and the rights of parents to raise them — without being undermined by rampant commercialism.”

Indiscriminate consuming can make kids greedy, fat and vulnerable to debt when they are adults. More importantly, it blinds them to more rewarding ways of spending time and money. Most parents vaccinate kids so they won’t get physically sick. Today, inoculating kids so they recognize and resist viral marketing is also part of raising healthy kids.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has written extensively about online issues while raising three computer-savvy kids.  She can be reached on her Web site,

This story originally appeared in the Feb., 2008 print edition of ParentMap.

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