Parents are increasingly tasked with the burden of educating their children about the repertoire of tactics used by advertisers.
It’s no secret that children today are navigating a more complicated media ecosystem than prior generations. One notable change is evident in the types of commercial messages that children encounter online. Parents are increasingly tasked with the burden of educating their children about the sophisticated tactics used by advertisers.
Jason Freeman, a professor in BYU’s School of Communications, is anxious to be part of the solution. Freeman’s academic research examines the ways media influences children, and what parents need to do to mitigate its effects.
According to Freeman’s latest research, subtle advertising and product placement in sponsored YouTube videos is one context that parents should be aware of. Videos of a child influencer opening a toy and demonstrating how to play with it have become wildly popular on YouTube, many garnering tens of millions of views from children around the globe. In fact, Walmart has a line of toys based on the reviews of a prominent kid YouTuber, Ryan Kaji of Ryan’s World. Unbeknownst to child viewers, however, is the fact that many of the toys shown in unboxing videos are paid for or provided by a brand, with the goal of influencing children.
Freeman and his co-author from Penn State, Frank Dardis, recently published an article on the topic in the Journal of Current Issues & Research in Advertising. The study featured nearly 500 participants who identified as parents of young children. These participants watched select iterations of a popular unboxing video. Parents were then asked in a series of questions about the commercial nature of these videos based on different types of video cues (i.e., sponsor disclosure type, presence of branding, and selling messages). The results showed that while parents have a rudimentary knowledge of the commercial nature of unboxing videos, they are more likely to struggle with identifying paid promotions when the video does not include a call to purchase or an explicit disclosure.
“Since children don’t have the ability to sufficiently understand the underlying persuasive intent of unboxing videos, it’s up to parents to internalize, understand, and then educate themselves,” said Freeman. “When parents critically engage with this content created for children, they are able to teach their children how the content might shape their child’s attitudes and behavior.”
Freeman offered a few additional thoughts on the topic that may be beneficial for parents to consider:
First, parents should be fair and patient with themselves. They’re navigating complex questions with few hard-and-fast rules. A parent might lose some media battles with their two-year-old, and that is okay. Advertising and media literacy occur over time, not in a single event. Parents should consider the types of mediation strategies that they employ based on the age of their child. For example, young children may benefit from having media time restricted, whereas older children may benefit from a combination of time monitoring paired with active styles of parental mediation. “These active approaches can include co-viewing and two-way dialogue about media and commercial tactics. Telling a child, ‘I want to talk about what is happening in this video,’ and then interacting together with the content can help the child become more media literate,” says Freeman.
Freeman also encourages parents to be familiar with federal advertising policies designed to protect children. While the FTC has standards that mandate disclosures if there is a material paid-for connection between a brand and an influencer, Freeman’s research notes that these embedded ads can be challenging to detect.
“Watch for cues in the video that encourage your child to purchase a toy. This can include disclosures, calls to purchase, or even branded elements based on brand and influencer collaborations. These things are simple and might only be brief in the video, but they can tip your awareness and indicate that what you’re watching is a paid promotion, not an organic video.”
"The good news is that parents can make a difference. It starts with recognizing how their child's viewing patterns influence their offline consumer behaviors and wants. When aware, a parent can become better equipped to coach their child in ways that will influence their media consumption, attitudes, and behaviors."
As many parents can attest, kids have profound buying power, or what Freeman and others in the literature refer to as “pester power.” Freeman argues that “pester power can result from watching these videos on YouTube,” noting that kids know the exact type of toy brand to look for once they enter a store.
Parents should be aware of the way in which the content their children view might shape their propensity to pester for specific branded products. There may be opportunities to teach a child about how the content that they interact with is shaping their purchase decisions. This foundation will help them become more savvy consumers as they transition into their adolescent and adult years.