Inoculate Kids Against Advertising

Lisa made her kids impervious to advertising by asking pointed questions that forced them to think about the source and truthfulness of ads. She knew action was needed when when her kids, who weren’t old enough to read, stopped in front of the bleach while shopping to ask the advertiser’s dream question: “Mom, aren’t we going to buy some Clorox?” Hit the jump to see how she responded.

What we decided to do was slightly unconventional, but it made sense to us. We inoculated our boys using a principle I had learned in a college communications course. Little by little, we taught them about basic economics and simple marketing techniques used by companies to encourage people to part with their hard-earned money. The theory was that if they could recognize the tactics companies used to market a product to people, then our children would become resistant to the claims presented in commercials and slowly learn to be discerning about their validity.

We didn’t sit the boys down for long lectures; rather, every time we noticed that a commercial or a print ad caught their attention, we asked them if they thought the product really did what the commercial claimed. This introduced the idea that sometimes people say things that aren’t true and that it was okay for them to question what they saw and heard. It also taught the boys that what they think is important and valuable.

At the same time, we explained to them how companies need money to pay their workers and themselves, and how those companies try to convince others to buy their products in order to make money. Slowly, we began to see a change in their behavior.

We knew our approach was working when, only a few months later, the boys asked me which paper towels we used. Soon after I answered them, I heard the sounds of running water and giggling coming from the downstairs bathroom. When I went to investigate, I saw Andy and Matt busily soaking paper towels and loading them with various toys. The explanation? They were testing the assertion that the towels were so strong they could carry heavy loads even when wet. The twins were so pleased the claims were true that Matt insisted we use nothing but this particular brand of towel in the future.

Aw, isn’t that cute? We still feel guilty for the time we asked our parents to order Pizza Hut after seeing an ad for their new (at the time) cheese stuffed crust conglomeration. We now hate Pizza Hut and miss our local pizzeria.

Have you taught your kids to turn a critical and distrusting eye towards advertisements? Tell us how you did it in the comments.

How to Inoculate Your Children Against Advertising [Get Rich Slowly]
(Photo: notsogoodphotography)

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  1. Snarkysnake says:

    God bless ‘em, these parents are actually doing their kids a great service.
    We used sarcasm to do the same thing. Whatever works.
    (My kids are in their early adult years and make mocking remarks to just about every ad they see on the tube)

    Madison Avenue is so full of shit.

  2. Galls says:

    We just got our 2 year old to fall in love with charlie chaplin…

  3. FilthyHarry says:

    My kid is 2.5 and we do without cable mostly because my and the lady cant stand commercials, and considering that out of what is available, so little is actually watchable, it made sense to d/l what we want or buy DVD’s of favored TV programs. The same goes for the boy. Anything he shows an interest in, we’ll D/L or buy DVD’s. The result? We were traveling recently, stayed in a hotel, TV goes on, we find a program he likes, a commercial comes on, he complains. All good.
    We fully intend like the mother in the article, to teach our boy the principals of critical thought, so he knows BS when it’s served up for him, but by the time we’re able to communicate that to him, commercials can do a lot of damage, so we avoid them as much as possible.

  4. bpotterr says:

    @Snarkysnake: But that’s what makes Mad Men such a fascinating show! Plus the smoking and drinking and infidelity.

  5. durkzilla says:

    I’ve done the same thing with my kids – whenever an ad comes on for some toy (car tracks for some reason are popular targets of mine) I ask my kids if they think the toy is as fun to play with as the commercial makes it look. They understand now that the purpose of ads are to make whatever is being sold look so incredibly fun to play with that they must have it, and the reality of the toy or product is generally much less life enhancing than the advertisement makes it appear. As a result, my kids don’t pester my wife and I for every product they see on TV any more.

    Simply talking with your kids is a great thing, I wonder why more parents aren’t doing this.

  6. FilthyHarry says:

    I think a good lesson would simply be to watch a fast food commercial, say for McDonald’s, point out how good that Big Mac looks, then immediately take the kid to the nearest McDonald’s and order a Big Mac and show it too the kid. Then throw out the burger. Point made.

  7. homerjay says:

    I’ve helped to inoculate my kids by teaching them to use the 30-second skip button on the DVR. Huzzah technology!

  8. @durkzilla: “I wonder why more parents aren’t doing this.”

    My stepdaughter’s mother actually considers it child abuse to not buy the kid EVERYTHING that’s advertised, and we’ve been rebuked by the state-appointed attorney (basically makes all the decisions) for not letting her watch TV and not buying her enough market-driven toys. So…that may be a hint. Our society is so invested in advertising that its taboo to instill common sense into a kid.

  9. @FilthyHarry: That’s quite a good idea, except I couldn’t deal with the waste of food, even if it is composed of corporate waste.

  10. Trai_Dep says:

    Just wait ’til they hit adolescence and you explain to them the meta-symbology of the Viagra trains-thru-tunnels, football-thru-tires and rockets-blasting-off clips. Giggles galore!

  11. SeraSera says:

    When I was younger, Consumer Reports had a kid’s magazine called Zillions that did this sort of stuff — picking commercials apart and doing Consumer Reports-esque tests on things that mattered to kids (ie. “Does Energizer keep on going and going and going, and how does this matter to your Game Boy’s battery life?”)

    It’s a shame Zillions crashed.

  12. FilthyHarry says:

    @SpiderJerusalem:

    Yeah I did think about it. But then I had to ask myself if I can really consider it food, or if I’m doing a good deed by taking one of those things off the market :)

    Either way, whether its used to teach a lesson or clog my fat arteries, it would be used.

  13. Wirehead says:

    When my brother and I were of the impressionable age, my parents got the both of us a subscription to “Zillions”, the Consumer Reports magazine for kids.

    It did wonders for making us both stingy and skeptical.

  14. CaptRavis says:

    During the designated time the kids get to watch TV, I will mute the sound and ask “What are ‘they’ trying to sell you!” :insert product name: “Do ‘you’ need any! NO! WAY!”

  15. Tank says:

    that’s awesome

  16. catnapped says:

    @Trai_Dep: Will it even take that long? I’d imagine there have to be at least some little ones who ask mommy or daddy “Can you get me some Viagra?” after seeing the commercial

  17. canuckistani says:

    in Canada we had a show called Street Cents that aired commercial free on the CBC (government owned), it taught kids to be smart with money, to not trust advertising, etc, and had segments where kids could air out their “beef” with manufacturers as well as showcase kids that were entrepreneurs..ran from like 1990 till just about last year, quality programming at that age.

  18. Eilonwynn says:

    @canuckistani: They have episodes online, too, if anyone’s interested in exposing their kids to it :) –

    I was in an enrichment program where watching streetcents was actually a part of the curriculum – we had to make our own ads, infomercials, discover how to market to people and what kind of outlandish claims worked, so that we’d recognise it when it happens to us. Now I irritate the bejeesus out of anyone and everyone around me whenever a TV runs a commercial, picking it apart.

  19. zekesmz says:

    For the last few years, whenever a McDonalds commercial comes on TV, I tell my kids that Ronald McDonald is a mean, evil clown who feeds bad food to kids to make them fat and sick.

    Works like a charm.

    The only downside is on road trips when we have no choice but to eat fast food, the kids don’t want to go to “McYucky’s” or “Stinky King”

    • Wolfbird says:

      Oh God.

      You should win a parenting award for that one. Mind if I try that out myself?

      Evil clown what makes kids fat. Stinky King… srsly. /giggle

  20. mac-phisto says:

    well, i don’t have kids, but thanks for bringing up pizza hut, jerk. i swear i’ve seen 100 stuffed crust pizza ads in the past week & i almost broke down last nite.

    i don’t even like pizza hut, but they make that cheese look so good…

    guess my parents coulda used this advice.

  21. sburnap42 says:

    @FilthyHarry: We do the same and have had much the same experience. I remember the first time our son saw a commercial. “Why did the movie stop!?” We are blissfully free of requests for the toy du jour. My favorite parenting moment was when our son, at four, asked us what the building under the golden arches was for.

  22. bohemian says:

    We dissect everything advertising related. Since we see all marketing as essentially BS and point it out as such it seems to be rubbing off on our kids.

    Our older one who is in high school is going through the state consumer math class this semester. They dissect everything from hidden bank fees to how credit cards and other financial traps get you. They also did a thing on health insurance and how to do your taxes. Every high school needs to make this a mandatory class.

  23. mac-phisto says:

    @homerjay: that’s not really inoculation – it’s avoidance. it’s still a good idea (similarly, my uncle always mutes the commercials, which helps to stifle their ability to grab your attention), but it’s also a good idea to couple that with a set of reasoning skills for times when the 30-second skip isn’t available.

  24. deweydecimated says:

    Another Zillions reader here. Oh, sorely missed now that I’m a parent!

    My son is allowed to watch PBS Kids programming without very direct supervision. Any commercial television has to be watched with mom or dad present. That gives us an opportunity to intercept and discuss the ads. There isn’t much on commercial television we let him watch for content reasons. DVDs of your old favorite shows can be a good backup if you’ve got rainy days, a sick kid, etc.

    We have the same rule for web sites, now that he’s old enough to realize that there are billions out there. We’ve set up his profile so he can access pbskids.org. Any other site is blocked, until we view the site with him, discuss it, and add it to his profile.

  25. alexanderpink says:

    Don’t have any children yet, but I definitely will be using this tactic, and not just for advertising. Beginning reasonable discussion with your children at an early age promotes a feeling of respect as well as teaches them to think critically of all things that they hear. I hope to Inoculate my children against religion, advertising, anti-darwinism, even Santa Claus by teaching them to critically evaluate what they hear and read. I shouldn’t have to just tell them these things aren’t true, I desire that they ask so many questions that the answer is unreasonable to and come to the conclusion themselves. People think I’m crazy cause I don’t want to teach my kid Santa is real, but I believe this promotes a thought process of accepting mythologies and accepting ridiculous answers (such as miracles/magic) to unlikely scenarios (how does Santa deliver all those presents in one night?).

  26. laserjobs says:

    FUCK BARNEY!!!

  27. elisa says:

    I remember Zillions! I didn’t realize that was gone. Zillions and Ranger Rick (anyone remember that? Kind of a junior – very junior – National Geographic) were my favorite magazines as a kid.

  28. What this person did for their kids was what every parent should be teaching their children. I am an Advertising major and I think anyone involved in the field knows that he purpose of advertising is to sell a product. Most people probably do, but what you tell your kids is important. Of course most children won’t be making their own purchases, so the real voice of choice is from parents.

    I do think that trying to explain advertising to children who are too young (maybe below 6 or 7?) could be harmful to them. If a child still believes in Santa than do they really need to know how the business world functions?

  29. b0yh0wdy says:

    @Trai_Dep: I’m hoping when you hit adolescence you’ll figure out that, contrary to popular belief, not everything that isn’t immediately obvious is, in fact, “meta”, and that despite what Dan Brown might think there’s no such thing as “symbology.”

  30. SaraAB87 says:

    Its awesome that parents are starting to wisen up and do this. Also it seems that it takes very little effort (probably less so than buying the toy at the store and/or dealing with a screaming fit every time the kid doesn’t get what they want when they want it), all you have to do is talk to the kids when the commercials come on, thats not much effort is it. You could even record the shows on a vhs tape if you still have a vcr (lol) and replay them to teach kids about the ads.

    Streetsense was a really good show for teens and even adults, as it taught you about common products and compared them to see which ones were really worth buying. I live in the US but we get canadian TV so I was able to watch this program a few times.

  31. Pink Puppet says:

    @elisa: On the bright side, Ranger Rick is still around. I’m hoping it’ll still be when my nephew is old enough to enjoy it like I did.

  32. ChuckECheese says:

    @durkzilla: Simply talking with your kids is a great thing, I wonder why more parents aren’t doing this.

    Talking to your kids is time-consuming and hard. Isn’t there an easier way to inoculate them, say, with an injection or something? Why inoculate when you can vaccinate?

  33. Superborty says:

    It is called parenting and discussing things with your kids. It will clearly come up that you don’t buy everything you see advertised and they will want to know why. Another idea is called turning a TV off.

  34. wring says:

    “No baby, clorox is too expensive. We buy the generic brand.”

  35. shanoaravendare says:

    @SeraSera:
    I remember Zillions! I was starting to think I had hallucinated it.

    I wish there were more things like Zillions target to kids so that we could get back to buying things based on the quality of the product rather than the quality of the ads for it. My parents took the time to make sure I knew how to spot a good deal (or a bad one) and I think that more parents should do so.

  36. zara_h says:

    Gave my son the party line around here when he was three and asked for some toy he saw on Nick Jr. Pretty soon he got good at reciting it:

    Me: “Son, advertising is a …”
    Him: “Lie.”
    Me: “That companies tell in order to get you to…”
    Him: “Buy things.”

    It works on everything but Lego Star Wars :D Curse you, Lego corp.!

  37. CumaeanSibyl says:

    @Trai_Dep: Meta-symbology? Around here we call that “dirty jokes.”

  38. Jcakes says:

    @homerjay: “I’ve helped to inoculate my kids by teaching them to use the 30-second skip button on the DVR. Huzzah technology!”

    Yabut..that’s not a real solution. Advertisers are in all media and are targeting children in ways we can’t fathom. They penetrate the market in very non-traditional ways. TV is Boomer advertising.

  39. SkyeBlue says:

    I may be the meanest mother in the world but one thing I have refused to do is buy a video game system for my younger children. Besides how violent the games are I just can’t bring myself to spend that much on a “toy” for a child (on top of how expensive the video games, accessories, etc. are) when I would not spend that much on a “gadget” for myself. Especially when we have a PC the kids can play games on that have no violence and are educational. My two older girls could have cared less about stuff like that but my two older boys saved their own money and bought systems for themselves.

    Another thing I refused to give into the advertising and peer pressure on is outrageously expensive shoes for the kids. When they need shoes we have a certain amount we will spend and if they wanted something more expensive they had to kick in the rest themselves.

    They look at things a bit different when it is their own money they are spending.

  40. @SkyeBlue: Switch “meanest” or “greatest” and then I’ll agree with you. ;-)

  41. TechnoDestructo says:

    I ended up impervious to advertisements and pretty much all sales tactics through a general distrust of everyone in the entire world.

    It’s not the sort of attitude I’d recommend encouraging in your children, though. The negatives outweigh the positives.

  42. Trai_Dep says:

    …Had I more coffee, I think I would have simply used, “allusions”. *blush*

  43. SaraAB87 says:

    @SkyeBlue: Video games aren’t expensive if you know how to shop for them, but yes they are very expensive if you must have the latest and greatest, and if you must have it now (prices drop fast though if you know how to shop!). Try buying a system from “last gen”, like the Playstation 2. Target just had them on sale for 100$ and you can find plenty of 5-10$ games in the bargain bins, fleamarkets and on ebay. The games have ratings so weeding out the violent ones shouldn’t be difficult. Also try buying a system bundle on ebay or craigslist and then giving it to them for Christmas (although you might want to purchase a couple months before Xmas because prices for video games skyrocket before Xmas on ebay). You could then give them the system and like 2 games for Xmas and then stash the rest of the games somewhere and use them for rewards and incentives throughout the whole year (the trick is also not to saturate them with 10 games at once.. then they get bored and you have to buy more games). There is even a library here that rents PS2 games for FREE, so you might want to look at your local libraries to see if they have that service. Also don’t forget about interlibrary loans :) Most of the cost of accessories in retail stores is markup, I recommend checking out dealextreme.com for accessories, you will find they are the same quality and much, much cheaper.

    The shoes didn’t matter to me until high school (and I went to a catholic school so shoes were all we had that was different than our uniforms), at which point the kids should be able to save enough to buy their own shoes if they want expensive ones. If your looking for brand name shoes try hitting Marshalls or TJ Maxx, they have brand names for a lot less, the styles may be a year or so old but most of the time that doesn’t matter unless you know your shoes by name.

  44. Instigator says:

    It would be even more beneficial if parents would teach their kids to question the statements made by politicians and others who have an interest in manipulating public opinion.

  45. cde says:

    @SkyeBlue: Oh look at that, you fell for media fud about video games. I mean, have you ever looked at the selection of games for gamecube or wii? The most violent one is like Road Rash or something. Please, go look at some game boxes before you decide how violent all games are nowadays :/

  46. dweebster says:

    Yeah, I’ve probably pissed off my partner many, many times by talking back to the commercials, louder in front of the kids. But it’s only by taking conscious control over the heavily-researched and financed brainwashing coming at us 24/7 that we can keep some level of intelligence and democracy in this world.

    A healthy dose of skepticism and criticism when B.S. comes your way may not be “polite” but it’s damn well needed – now more than ever.

  47. wfpearson says:

    One of my most favoritest [sic] lessons from elementary school was on marketing and the gimmicks ad men use. It stuck with me through to adulthood.

  48. magic8ball says:

    @AbstractConcept: I never told my kids that Santa was real; in fact, I told them upfront that he’s just pretend. So is it OK for me to tell them that advertisers lie to them? I mean, I wouldn’t want to damage their fragile psyches or anything. /sarcasm.

  49. SkyeBlue says:

    @cde: Oh look at that, you fell for media fud about video games.

    Ok, I will give you a few points with that one, you may be right. But when I have gone over to my older sons homes and seen some of the games they play, with people just getting mowed down and blood spurting everywhere I have to say things like that can skew your opinion a bit! But still the expense of the systems and the games is a big factor also in my not buying them.

  50. cde says:

    @SkyeBlue: Figuring that if your older sons have their own homes, they are 18+. Different tastes in video games then 4~12. Hell, I know plenty of 22~30 year olds playing Wii Bowling or Golf, or Smash Brothers.

    But yes, cost is prohibitive.

  51. frndlybnny says:

    I’m a school librarian (I know: sexy, right?). Anyway, one of the (many) things I try to do is teach children how to be information literate… and that includes judicious consumption of mass media and advertising. Unfortunately, this topic is not on our state’s standardized test, so it’s hard to get time to work with the students.

  52. pinkbunnyslippers says:

    My parents did the same exact thing to me…and I ended up in Marketing. lol

    The upside is that I’m pretty impervious to marketing/sales tactics now — a friend actually commented on how it’s very easy to tell I’m in marketing because almost everything in my house is generic…so maybe this IS the right approach!

  53. Krossbones says:

    Luckily, my parents also instilled this wisdom into me at a very young age. I’ve now grown to responsibly spend my money, and every time I make a purchase I ask myself if I really need what I’m buying. I don’t even get french fries with my burgers anymore.

  54. PølάrβǽЯ says:

    “This introduced the idea that sometimes people say things that aren’t true and that it was okay for them to question what they saw and heard. It also taught the boys that what they think is important and valuable.”

    Here’s two boys that WON’T grow up to be sheeple! KUDOS to the parents!

  55. BitRaiser says:

    Heyya! Registered just so I could post this reply to the article.

    While I don’t have any kids of my own, I’m grateful to my parents for pulling similar sneaky stunts on me during my upbringing.

    I specifically remember a time where a breakfast cereal commercial was advertising a new prize… I told my Dad I wanted it. He reminded me that I didn’t (and never have) like breakfast cereal and that for the same price as a box of that stuff, we could buy a much more interesting toy.

    To demonstrate his point, we went shopping. He showed me the price of the cereal then told me to go to the toy section and pick out something for the same price or less. Being a fast learner, I picked *2* toys that added up to the same price as the cereal. Dad approved and I was very pleased with my 2 new waterguns.

    So… yeah, this stuff works. I credit my folks with infusing me with an strong resistance to marketing which eventually developed into full fledged aversion.

  56. Joe_Bagadonuts says:

    @SeraSera: I remember Zillions! Used to subscribe to it as a kid. I think it was called “Penny Power” prior to changing the name to Zillions. FTW!!!1!!1!

    Additionally, I know some adults who could use this type of training against commercials…

  57. dwarf74 says:

    @AbstractConcept: I don’t think it’s ever too early to start teaching lessons like this. Toy companies have started targeting kids as young as 2 or 3 with their advertising. If the advertisers are targeting an age group, it’s definitely not too early to teach them about advertising.

  58. kartik.garg says:

    But doesn’t this article make you question how much “street sense” adults in this country have?

    I mean the last person you can blame for falling into advertising traps is your kids and the first person your parents. Yet every single day, you (yes that’s YOU) make decisions that are subtly influenced by advertising. When does the scapegoating stop and the introspection begin?

  59. chrisjames says:

    Excellent parenting trick. Subtle mind-control games to offset the subtle mind-control from the commercials. That’s pretty clever.

    Though, wouldn’t it be even better to just steer the kids away from the TV? I’ve already cut it off in my home, and even I’m starting to feel the effects.

  60. Rectilinear Propagation says:

    This introduced the idea that sometimes people say things that aren’t true and that it was okay for them to question what they saw and heard.

    Questioning things instead of assuming everything someone tells them is the truth is gonna cause some problems in school.

  61. apotheosis says:

    My son got a useful object lesson in the difference between commercials and reality.

    Despite misgivings from both my wife and I, he insisted on buying one of those Air Hogs R/C helicopters which, according to the commercials, can do everything just short of winning the Global War on Terror by sheer force of awesomeness.

    He soon realized that several weeks’ of allowance had purchased him a 6-inch long hunk of styrofoam with the “awesome” ability to go up and down and very little else, and that for all of 40 seconds per charge.

    I think it’s worth it for him to become more wary of flashy advertising.

  62. G-Dog says:

    You taught them “it was okay for them to question what they saw and heard”? Are you some freedom hating terrorist? If you don’t blindly except everything at face value with a smile, you’re not American!

  63. Chols says:

    It’s stories like this that make me want to have a kid to make him/her just like me!

  64. HeartBurnKid says:

    @SkyeBlue: My mom and dad thought much the same thing about a video game system, so they refused to buy an NES for me and my brother… unless we ponied up half the dough. Which we did. It was a great way to teach us a lesson in saving money. Even if my brother did lord it over me that he pitched in $10 more than I did. :)

    Once you have the system, the games really aren’t that bad, unless of course you insist on buying new releases.

  65. trujunglist says:

    My ex’s son is a walking-talking commercial. He’s only 2.5 years old, so he doesn’t really understand a lot of what he’s saying or what others say, but some of his first words were crap from commercials, which to me was really embarrassing because I grew up in a household without TV for half a year a time (my mom took away TV access from the start of summer until X-Mas), although my ex didn’t/doesn’t mind so much (just one of many arguments…). Whenever we’d drive around, he’d point out all the fast food restaurants. His favorite was Denny’s, and before he could really even talk somewhat properly he’d get super agitated and frantic when we’d drive by Denny’s and start yelling “Cancakes, cancakes!” because he really loves pancakes and knew the Denny’s logo. He’s a fanatical car lover and knows every brand of car based on their symbol, obviously not because he can read the names. I once bought him some hot wheels cars, specifically a Dodge Challenger 2007 concept, from the grocery store. I had in in a plastic bag, and was about to pull it out, but he recognized the hot wheels symbol and freaked.
    He sure does love his Godge though. That’s not a typo.

  66. Torley says:

    Seth Godin should introduce a line of books for kids and tell them all about the intrusive ugliness of most advertising so our youth get desensitized/aware of the crap much earlier.