No, child, you don’t need it just because the guy on the screen says you do


Posted June 01, 2014, at 11:51 a.m.

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The conversation, though fictional, could easily go like this:

“Mom, can I have that (whatever was just advertised on TV)?”

“Do you need it?”

“No, but I have to have it.”


“The guy on TV said so.”

From there, the conversation might go in any number of directions. As members of the consuming public, we’re all subject to a barrage of advertising. The younger consumers in our society are increasingly targeted by those ads; both we and they need to understand what the messages of the ads are all about.

Research by the National Institute on Media and Family shows young people spend more time in front of screens than on any other activity, other than sleeping. The average is 53 hours per week, and that’s enough screen time to absorb a pile of ad messages.

Do we need to say that many of those ads are designed for adult consumption?

The advertisers may well say with straight faces that they don’t try to influence children inappropriately. Critics argue that the ads are conditioning young people for lives of fast food, luxurious yet economical cars and a cosmetic or pharmaceutical for all occasions.

The merchants of these goods know the power of electronic media. They’re all too aware of the best intentions of concerned parents, carting children from one activity to the next until all are spent. Finally alone before their respective screens, the consumers of all ages log on, kick back and take it all in.

Most advertisers hope they take it in without question.

And so, parents have a huge obligation to provide guidance. Teach youngsters to think critically about the messages they see and hear — product-related or otherwise — and you’ve taught one of the most important lessons they’ll ever receive.

Cigarettes may be a prime example. Tobacco companies were barred from buying time on TV many years ago, but today electronic cigarette ads abound. Some health officials worry that a whole generation will become addicted to nicotine through a new delivery system. It’s worth a conversation, about both the health effects and the messages e-cigarette ads convey.

A hidden message in a lot of advertising is defiance. Researchers from the Annenberg School of Communications wrote in 1980 that not much study had yet been done on the role of TV commercials in ramping up family conflict. However, the authors said, “One implication from these studies is that by third grade, children become less accepting of parents’ refusals to purchase a product and more likely to respond to their frustration in an aggressive manner (Sheikh and Moleski, 1977).”

Finding the “truth” in advertising is likely another discussion entirely. But helping youngsters to look critically at ads and everything else that comes across their electronic screens is well worth the time and effort.

We recommend a great little book titled Made You Look: How Advertising Works and Why You Should Know by Shari Graydon. Writing for teens and tweens, Graydon sorts wheat from chaff in showing how ads target young people and how young people can be ready.

Talk about ads with a young person you know. You could both learn a lot.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit or email


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