Should advertising be allowed to target children?

Sabrina Almeida

It’s an age-old controversy or problem – depending on your stance in this debate. Arguably, it could be seen as morally or ethically wrong but is undoubtedly extremely good for business. That is the bottom line!

So, why are we talking about this not-so new situation? Well, it’s all thanks to Facebook… Once again social media has shown its ugly side. Unfortunately, those of us that are up in arms about it have all the checks in place. But not impressionable and vulnerable teens, many of whom need social media validation.

If you’re scratching your head on this one, let me bring you up to speed  – a whistleblower recently revealed that Facebook (parent company now known as Meta) allowed companies to directly target its teen users based on their online behaviour. Similar to what happens when we’re surfing the net and vacay ads pop up on your email and social media accounts based on your Internet search for holiday destinations a few days ago.

However, the practice is not so harmless when the targeting results in weight loss ads being aimed at teens with emerging eating disorders. There is no right side to this morally unconscionable act which Facebook might also profit from.

The backlash after the revelation caused the social media platform to promise it would replace ‘targeting selected by advertisers’ with ‘optimisation selected by a machine learning delivery system’. How is this different or more protective of children? It’s not! They’re still fair game!

Marketing to children and teens is typically how toys, video games and other youth-oriented products get sold. It’s not always bad. Commercials for so-called nutrition drinks Bournvita and Complan were a childhood staple for many of us who were raised in India. But the waters get murkier when the screen shifts to cigarette-shaped candy. As children we loved to pretend that we were smoking. It seemed harmless at the time, till you realise that it could cultivate a smoking habit. It’s called grooming. After all, kids are the future adult consumers!

Companies spend millions of dollars researching what makes kids tick so that they can influence their current and future choices. Studies suggest that today’s kids dictate a lot of their parents’ buying decisions, even if it is through nagging, and thus marketers will leave no stone unturned to get to them.

I remember drinking tons of Gold Spot (an orange soda made by Parle in India) for its Jungle Book crown collection! My parents indulged me even though they normally would have restricted my soda consumption. We wanted all the crowns! Such is the power of advertising.

Marketing intentions have never been noble. It was just the radio and television when I was a child, but now it’s the world wide web which is so much scarier.

The Internet is an extremely desirable marketing medium to target children who are often on alone and unsupervised. Companies are constantly on the lookout for new and creative ways to reach them. Whether it is educational sites or gaming and social media platforms, they’ve increased ad presence to get to them. This includes buzz marketing where young influencers are provided with free samples of products and asked to promote them.

Remember 8-year-old Ryan? According to Forbes, Ryan Kaji earned nearly $30 million from his channel, which boasts over 40 million subscribers. I thought this was nonsense, till colleagues shared how their children tuned in to Ryan’s World on YouTube to see him open the latest toys!!! 

A smart and sneaky approach, it allows companies to market their products and services in a cheap but effective way.

Anything Ryan earned from the promotions would have been a fraction of the manufacturers’ profits.

Can anything be done to save the children? Definitely not at the Facebook/Meta level. It’s a free platform that relies on advertising revenue. So, it’s all about who controls the purse strings.

But governments can most certainly step in. Many countries including the UK and Spain are clamping down on the junk food market. And Canada has restricted the promotion of vaping products to protect youth. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. 

Many parents are unaware of the extent to which kids are being marketed to online. It’s time to be aware of what they are dealing with so that you can educate your children about how advertising works and prevent them from being influenced by it.




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