Taking Action - Marketing and Consumerism

To help kids avoid the many traps and pitfalls set up by online marketers, parents and teachers need to become more informed about online marketing techniques and privacy issues – and then pass the information on to kids.

Teaching kids about advertising

Digital media literacy has been found to be effective in helping kids become more skeptical about advertising, less likely to respond to it[1] and better able to judge advertising claims.[2]

Media literacy scholars have identified key ideas about advertising that children need to learn:

  1. Advertising is different from other content;
  2. Companies pay for advertising;
  3. Advertising often does not give you a full or accurate story about what’s being advertised;
  4. Advertising is trying to persuade you;
  5. The purpose of advertising is to get you to buy or like something;
  6. Advertising uses particular techniques and appeals to persuade you;
  7. Different products and different ads are aimed at different audiences and ads for different audiences may use different techniques or appeals.[3]

However, they don’t have to learn all seven of these ideas at once. Trying to cover too much in a single lesson can make it harder for them to take in new information[4] and kids are able to learn different things at different ages.

What do kids understand about advertising at different ages?

Most children start to be able to tell the difference between advertising and other content around age five.

By around age eight, most kids can understand that the purpose of advertising is to sell or promote products.

In the following years, between nine and 12, kids can learn that advertising does not just send a simple message (“this product exists”), but that it has a persuasive message that may be misleading and may not be based on rational arguments.[5]

However, recent research suggests that we can help children reach these developmental goals by encouraging them to develop theory of mind (understanding that other people have thoughts and intentions separate from theirs), to recognize persuasive intent and build the executive function and impulse control they need to resist advertising messages and critically engage with branding.[6]

In other words, it’s never too early to start talking to kids about those seven key ideas.[7] The trick is to follow your children’s lead: if they ask why a cartoon character is on a cereal box, for instance, you can tell them it’s because the people who make the cereal know kids like cartoon characters and so will ask for that kind of cereal.

You can also make a point of co-viewing with your kids so that you have an idea of what ads and other branded content they’re encountering and you can ask them questions about it (“Do you think she was paid to unbox that? If not, do you think the company gave it to her for free? Would that change what you think about it?”).

Here are some ways that adults can help kids learn how to recognize and decode advertising:

Think critically about advertising

Kids need to be educated about marketing and how to recognize when they’re being sold to. It’s important to remember that just recognizing something is an ad is not enough: kids also have to be taught to recognize and respond to the techniques that ads use to persuade us. That’s especially true of ads that aren’t obviously persuasive (such as brand-building and identity ads)[8] and ads that are mixed with non-commercial content (like advergames and influencer testimonials).[9]

Understanding that advertising may be misleading – and that companies often sell or advertise things that they know are harmful – is important, too. In one study, teens who had been taught that junk food is often misleadingly labeled and targeted at young children were 20 percent less likely to choose unhealthy snacks.[10] Another study found that students who had read an exposé of junk food advertising techniques and then “remixed” food ads to be more accurate were significantly less likely to eat unhealthy food.[11] It’s important, though, not to criticize the food (which many of them may enjoy) or the students themselves, but rather to encourage them to see themselves as savvy underdogs facing a marketing Goliath.

It's also important to teach kids that advertisers are limited by codes and standards, such as those against false advertising, to help them understand what advertisers aren’t allowed to do and to highlight what they can get away with.

We can also highlight socially responsible, positive advertisements. For example, the About-Face website features examples of advertisements that promote positive images of women and children.

Think critically about online endorsements

Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social networks are full of material endorsing consumer products such as toys, food and makeup. Some of these are honest recommendations, but many are also paid endorsements and it can be hard to tell the difference. “Influencers” are supposed to clearly state when they’ve taken money to endorse a product, so get kids in the habit of looking for those statements and being skeptical of any endorsement they see online – paid or unpaid. 

Be careful not to seem like you’re criticizing the influencer personally, since kids may take that as a criticism of their tastes and themselves. Instead, encourage them to think of the influencer as someone who is doing a good job running a business, like a magazine or a TV channel, highlighting how they make money to pay for the other content your kids enjoy through product endorsements.

Clearly explain any hidden costs

Make sure your kids understand that in-game and in-app purchases can cost real money. You can turn off in-app purchases on iPhones and iPads and Android devices. Explain the different ways that apps and games try to get you to spend money (see the Online commerce article for more on this).

If you do allow your kids to make in-app or in-game purchases, consider buying them a prepaid card instead of connecting their account to a credit card. This puts a limit on how much they are able to spend.

Recognize responsible children’s sites

Not all websites have privacy policies – and when they do, it’s important to learn to read the fine print. A good privacy policy will come right out and tell users what information is being collected from kids and how it will be used. It should also allow parents to view the information collected on their child and edit or delete it if they wish.

A responsible site for kids should:

  • Identify its partners.
  • Make sure the difference is clear between its content and any advertisements.
  • Have a privacy policy which is written in language that kids can understand and can be reached both from the home page and any other pages where kids are asked to submit information.
  • State clearly in its privacy policy that any information collected from children will not be sold to a third party. (This can be misleading, however: Minecraft is owned by Microsoft, so Microsoft subsidiaries would not be considered ‘third parties.’)
  • Require parental consent to be obtained before any child under 13 releases any personal information. This consent should be verifiable, not just a simple exhortation such as: “Hey, kids, be sure to get your parents’ permission before you give out information online!”

Use ad-blocking and anti-tracking settings and software

Use browser plugins and apps like Privacy Badger, DuckDuckGo and Blokada to block intrusive ads and stop your kids’ data from being collected.

Visit Ad Choices to opt out of interest-based ads on your (and your kids’) computers and devices. You can also turn off ad personalisation on Google, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. This won’t make your kids see fewer ads, but the ads they see won’t be targeted based on their personal information.

Teach kids to skip ads when they can.

  • You can help them avoid in-app ads by teaching them to “Wait for the X” – don’t tap popups right away (which will take you to the full ad), but wait until the X to close it appears.[12]

If you’re curious about what kind of data a site is collecting, you can scan it with the free web tool Blacklight (https://themarkup.org/blacklight) to find out who is tracking your kids and how. A scan of the educational website Prodigy, for instance, found 10 ad trackers, twelve third-party cookies and a session recorder that monitors keystrokes and mouse clicks.

Help kids develop non-materialist values

As noted above, one of the deepest impacts of advertising is that it promotes materialist values. This is one reason why kids are happy to provide unpaid advertising for their favourite brands on social media: not just because they may want to be influencers themselves, but because owning the “right” brands and products is a way of building status. Because different youth subcultures prefer different brands, it can also be a way of exploring and developing identity and showing commitment to a peer group.

Here are some things parents can do to help kids develop non-materialist values:

  • Limit exposure to advertising and help kids develop media literacy.
  • Don’t buy them things as a reward or refuse to buy them things as a punishment.[13]
  • Don’t buy them things to make them feel better when they’re unhappy.
  • Help kids learn to talk about their feelings and provide emotional support when they have troubles.
  • Help them build a strong identity by praising qualities like effort, honesty and kindness.[14]
  • Treat shopping as an errand, not a treat or a ritual.
  • Avoid buying branded clothing.
  • Try to limit the connection between brands (especially branded characters) and your child’s identity.
    • If your child does become involved in a “fandom,” encourage them to explore it through creative activities – such as writing, drawing or making their own games or videos – rather than buying things.
  • Resist pester power: set rules about what you are willing to buy and when and stick to them.
  • Put as much time as possible between when kids start to want something (such as when they see an ad) and when you buy it for them.
  • Explore libraries, second-hand stores, and garage sales. Many communities also have online Buy Nothing or Freecycle groups where you can get things for free and give away things you don’t need.
  • Model non-materialist behaviour yourself by talking out loud about what you’re buying and why.

Make sure to keep it up as kids get older. The “tween” years are when kids are most likely to feel that owning the right “stuff” will make them happy![15]

Celebrate Buy Nothing Day with your school or Guide/Scout unit:

  • The idea behind this international event is to encourage consumers to examine their spending habits, and to think about the effect of mass consumerism on the cultural and natural environment of the world. For more information, see the Buy Nothing Day lesson plan.

Complaining about offensive, inappropriate and intrusive ads and techniques

Understanding advertising guidelines and codes

In Canada, there are a number of important laws and regulation that cover advertising to children.

The only law relating specifically to advertising to children is Quebec’s Consumer Protection Act, which applies to all media in Quebec and does not allow any commercial marketing to children under 13 years old.

In the rest of the country, advertising to children is covered by industry self-regulatory codes, such as the Canadian Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, the Broadcast Code for Advertising to Children, the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, and the Digital Advertising Alliance of Canada’s Canadian Self-Regulatory Principles for Online Behavioural Advertising.

The Canadian Code of Advertising Standards has two provisions that relate specifically to advertising to children and youth:

Advertising to Children

Advertising that is directed to children must not exploit their credulity, lack of experience or their sense of loyalty. It must not present information or illustrations that might result in their physical, emotional or moral harm.

Advertising to Minors

Products prohibited from sale to minors must not be advertised in such a way as to appeal particularly to persons under legal age. People featured in advertisements for such products must be, and clearly seen to be, adults under the law.

Ad Standards has also published an Interpretation Guideline relating more specifically to advertising to children.[16] It clarifies that:

  • An ad is “directed to children” if children “are the only users or form a substantial part of the market as users, and the message (i.e. language, selling points, visuals) is presented in a manner that is directed primarily to children under the age of 12”;
  • “snack foods [must be] clearly presented as such, not as substitutes for meals”;
  • “advertising of food products should not discourage or disparage healthy lifestyle choices or the consumption of fruits or vegetables”;
  • “the amount of product featured in food advertising to children should not be excessive or more than would be reasonable to acquire, use or, where applicable, consume, by a person in the situation depicted”;
  • “audio or visual presentations must not exaggerate service, product or premium characteristics, such as performance, speed, size, colour, durability, etc.”;
  • “advertising to children must not misrepresent the size of the product”;
  • “when showing results from a drawing, construction, craft or modelling toy or kit, the results should be reasonably attainable by an average child”;
  • “the words ‘new’, ‘introducing’ and ‘introduces’ or similar words may be used in the same context in any children's advertising for a period of up to one year only”;
  • “products not intended for use by children may not be advertised either directly or through promotions that are primarily child-oriented”;
  • “drug products, including vitamins, may not be advertised to children, with the exception of children's fluoride toothpastes”;
  • “children must not be directly urged to purchase or to ask their parents to make inquiries or purchases”;
  • “products must not be shown being used in an unsafe or dangerous manner (e.g. tossing a food item into the air and attempting to catch it in the mouth)”;
  • “advertising to children must not imply that, without the advertised product, a child will be open to ridicule or contempt; or that possession or use of a product makes the owner superior.”

Changes to the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards made in 2016 and similar rules put in place in other countries require anyone making a paid endorsement to be clear about the nature of the endorsement and who’s paying for it.

Advertising Standards Canada published an Interpretation Guideline to the new rules that make it clear what “digital influencers” have to disclose:

A testimonial, endorsement, review or other representation must disclose any ‘material connection’ between the endorser, reviewer, influencer or person making the representation and the ‘entity’… that makes the product or service available to the endorser, reviewer, influencer or person making the representation, except when that material connection is one that consumers would reasonably expect to exists, e.g. a television advertisement in which a celebrity publicly endorses a product or service. If such a material connection exists, that fact and the nature of the material connection must be clearly and prominently disclosed in close proximity to the representation about the product or service.

Despite these rules and guidelines, it’s still very easy for kids to mistake a paid endorsement for a review of just a friend’s opinion, especially when influencers are seen as regular people and not celebrities. As well, disclosure by itself is not enough to make kids engage critically with influencer ads.[17] It’s important to make sure they know that many of the “reviews” and product recommendations online are really ads and that they need to view them as critically as any other kind of advertising.

Talking back to ads

It’s important that consumers voice their opinions about advertising to the industry.

If you live in Quebec, you can file a complaint with the Office de la protection du consommateur.

If you live outside of Quebec, complaints about most kinds of ads in Canada (print ads, out-of-home ads, TV ads, movie ads and online ads) should be made to Ad Standards Canada. Make sure to include the following information:

  • For print advertisements: identify the name and date of the publication(s) in which you saw the advertisement(s) and include a copy of the advertisement(s).
  • For out-of-home advertisements, such as outdoor, transit or similar advertisements: identify the date on and exact location at which you saw the advertisement.
  • For broadcast advertisements: identify the station, time and date on/at which you saw/heard the commercial and provide a brief description of the commercial.
  • For cinema advertisements: identify the title of the movie, the date of viewing and the name and location of the movie theatre at which you saw the advertisement and provide a brief description of the advertisement.
  • For internet advertisements: identify the date of viewing and website. Include a print-out of the advertisement and other applicable web pages (if any).[18]
    • There are major challenges to complaining about online ads. Unlike a print or display ad, online ads are targeted at the people considered most likely to respond to them. That means that ads that may be offensive – such as ones that include stereotypes or sexualized images – might go under the radar. The context an ad appears in is also a factor. An ad for a diet plan wouldn’t necessarily be inappropriate, but would be for children or teens.[19] Finally, parents are much less likely to be aware of what ads our kids are seeing online than in traditional media.[20]

To comment on an online endorsement that does not disclose who paid for it, you can also contact the person making the endorsement. Make sure they know that both Canada and the U.S., as well as many other jurisdictions, require online influencers to disclose who paid for the endorsement.

For more information on how to make your voice heard, see our parent guide Talk Back! How to Take Action on Media Issues.

To complain about data collection in a children’s website or app:

Although it is not illegal to collect personal information from kids in Canada, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) requires “meaningful consent for the collection, use and disclosure of personal information.” The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has stated that “it is difficult to ensure meaningful consent from children to online behavioural advertising practices. Therefore, as a best practice, organizations should avoid tracking children and tracking on websites aimed at children.”[21]

If an app or website is collecting your child’s data, you can complain to the Commissioner’s office here: https://www.priv.gc.ca/en/report-a-concern/

Complaining about greenwashing and “causewashing”:

It’s important to call out advertisers who don’t put their money where their mouths are. If a company claims it supports LGBTQ2S+ rights but donates money to homophobic politicians, for instance, consumer pressure can make a big difference.[22] The MediaSmarts guide Speak Up! Your Guide to Changing the World, Online and Off gives tips for kids and teens to use media to organize around issues they believe in.

Getting active at the grassroots level

Stop commercialization in your school or school district:

  • Work with your school’s parent and student councils and your school trustees to develop guidelines for commercialization in your school or district.

    Make sure your local media is aware of your efforts. For more information, see the Making Your School a Commercial-Free Zone tip sheet.

Help keep marketing and privacy on the political agenda:

  • Laws and regulations are being passed around the world to limit advertising to children and to make things like dark patterns and targeted advertising illegal.[23]

If you would like to see similar laws and regulations adopted in Canada (or ones like Quebec’s law against advertising to kids adopted in other provinces), make sure that your members of parliament and provincial/territorial legislatures know it! You can be sure that the advertising industry is making their voice heard.

Parent resources
Teacher resources

[1] Zarouali, B., Ponnet, K., Walrave, M., & Poels, K. (2017). “Do you like cookies?” Adolescents' skeptical processing of retargeted Facebook-ads and the moderating role of privacy concern and a textual debriefing. Computers in Human Behavior, 69, 157-165.

[2] Livingstone, S., & Rahali, M. (2021) Written evidence on influencer culture and children. London School of Economics and Political Science.

[3] Wright, P., Friestad, M., & Boush, D. M. (2005). The development of marketplace persuasion knowledge in children, adolescents, and young adults. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 24(2), 222-233.

[4] Jeong, S.-H., Yum, J.-Y., & Hwang, Y. (2018). What components should be included in advertising literacy education?: Effects of component types and the moderating role of age. Journal of Advertising, 47, 347-361.

[5] Livingstone, S., & Rahali, M. (2021) Written evidence on influencer culture and children. London School of Economics and Political Science.

[6] Lapierre, M. A., Fleming-Milici, F., Rozendaal, E., McAlister, A. R., & Castonguay, J. (2017). The effect of advertising on children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 140(Supplement_2), S152-S156.

[7] Stanley, S. L., & Lawson, C. A. (2018). Developing discerning consumers: an intervention to increase skepticism toward advertisements in 4-to 5-year-olds in the US. Journal of Children and Media, 12(2), 211-225.

[8] Livingstone, S., & Rahali, M. (2021) Written evidence on influencer culture and children. London School of Economics and Political Science.

[9] Feijoo, B., & Sadaba C. When Ads Become Invisible: Minors’ Advertising Literacy While Using Mobile Phones. Media and Communication (ISSN: 2183–2439) 2022, Volume 10, Issue 1. https://doi.org/10.17645/mac.v10i1.4720

[10] Bryan, C. J., Yeager, D. S., Hinojosa, C. P., Chabot, A., Bergen, H., Kawamura, M., & Steubing, F. (2016). Harnessing adolescent values to motivate healthier eating. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(39), 10830-10835.

[11] Bryan, C. J., Yeager, D. S., & Hinojosa, C. P. (2019). A values-alignment intervention protects adolescents from the effects of food marketing. Nature human behaviour, 3(6), 596-603.

[12] Radesky, J. (2021) The digital world is built on advertising. How do we help kids navigate it? CNN Health. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2021/05/18/health/kids-digital-advertising-wellness/index.html

[13] Richins, M. L., & Chaplin, L. N. (2015). Material parenting: How the use of goods in parenting fosters materialism in the next generation. Journal of Consumer Research, 41(6), 1333-1357.

[14] Richins, M.L., Materialism pathways: The processes that create and perpetuate materialism, Journal of Consumer Psychology (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jcps.2017.07.006

[15] Richins, M.L., Materialism pathways: The processes that create and perpetuate materialism, Journal of Consumer Psychology (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jcps.2017.07.006

[16] (n.d.) Interpreting the Code. Ad Standards. Retrieved from https://adstandards.ca/code/interpretation-guidelines/

[17] Boerman, S., & Van Reijmersdal, E. (2020). Disclosing influencer marketing on YouTube to children: The moderating role of para-social relationship. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 3042.

[18] (n.d.) How to Submit a Complaint. Ad Standards Canada. Retrieved from https://adstandards.ca/complaints/how-to-submit-a-complaint/

[19] Milano, S., MIttelstadt, B., & Wachter S. (2021) Targeted ads isolate and divide us even when they’re not political. Oxford Internet Institute. Retrieved from https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/news-events/news/targeted-ads-isolate-and-divide-us-even-when-theyre-not-political/

[20] Chester, J., Montgomery, K., & Kopp K. (2021) Big Food, Big Tech, and the Global Childhood Obesity Pandemic. Center for Digital Democracy. Retrieved from https://www.democraticmedia.org/sites/default/files/field/public-files/2021/cdd_big_food_big_tech_5-21fin.pdf

[21] (2021) Guidelines on privacy and online behavioural advertising. Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. Retrieved from https://www.priv.gc.ca/en/privacy-topics/technology/online-privacy-tracking-cookies/tracking-and-ads/gl_ba_1112/

[22] Liederman, E. (2022) This Report Shows Why Gen Z Sees Straight Through Your Marketing Efforts. Adweek. Retrieved from https://www.adweek.com/agencies/this-report-shows-why-gen-z-sees-straight-through-your-marketing-efforts/

[23] Jacobs, H. (2022) Is Momentum Shifting Toward a Ban on Behavioral Advertising? The Markup. Retrieved from https://themarkup.org/ask-the-markup/2022/02/03/is-momentum-shifting-toward-a-ban-on-behavioral-advertising