Q: My 5-year-old son’s summer camp is studying the Olympics, a topic he is very interested in. We’ve been seeing many billboards and TV commercials with athletes promoting Coca Cola. The first time he saw one, he literally said, “Oh, if I drink Coca Cola, then I can be a great boxer too.” Of course I was disturbed by his reaction and started to talk with him about advertisements. We’d love some advice—how do you explain advertisements to young kids?
– Annoyed by Advertisements in the USA
A:Your question reflects the fact that the Olympics have become increasingly commercialized, not only because they are capturing an estimated 4 billion viewers (more than half the world’s population), but also because the Olympians themselves often have few resources with which to prepare and get to the games. Subsequently, many athletes accept endorsements from companies that require they integrate recognizable brands in their gear or perform in commercials (like the boxer drinking an iconic American soft drink that we won’t name here).
What you are facing is a critical problem with any advertising that reaches children – those who are under 6 years old haven’t yet developed the cognitive capability to understand persuasive intent – that is, they don’t understand that the purpose of advertisements and brand integration is to persuade viewers to buy that product. While adults recognize how incongruous it is to show a highly trained athlete guzzling a sugar- and caffeine-loaded beverage, your son does not, and instead draws an immediate association between the athlete and the soda.
So what do you say to your 5-year-old? Talk to him directly about ads he sees – ask him why they caught his attention; was it the colors, music, famous person or funny cartoon? Then ask him how the ad makes him feel; does it make him feel happy, excited or like he wants something he saw? Next, figure out together what the ad is selling and whether your son would want the product and why or why not. Breaking down advertisements together will help your son develop critical thinking skills – which will help him deal with not only commercials, but any information he receives.
Finally, remember that this solution is imperfect as children at this age and even slightly older will still be attracted to advertised products, even when they are educated about persuasive intent. Thus, make sure that your end goal is to have your son begin to assess, on a case-by case basis, who is creating that message and how they want that message to change our behavior. Reaching for this goal will help him acquire early media literacy skills that he can build on throughout his life.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,