Section two - Smart cookies

2. Smart cookies: recruiting young brand ambassadors

Of course, marketing is a legitimate industry, an important part of commercial survival and part of the creative landscape. In the UK, £14.5 billion was spent on advertising in 2009[1] and it is estimated that £350 million of this is spent on advertising directly to children.[2] The spending on television advertising aimed at children has decreased over the past ten years to around £200 million in 2007, but there has been an accompanying rise in children’s exposure to advertising of ‘neutral’ products or those aimed at adults.[3] Around €130m is spent on food and drink advertising in Ireland, much of which is seen by children.[4]

However, the purpose of marketing is to sell, by creating an incentive to purchase. It is some of the incentives and techniques used, as well as some of the products themselves, that cause concern, especially those which appear to take advantage of, or exploit, children’s natural willingness to trust. Young children are influenced by marketing from as young as 18 months and at this age can recognise a corporate label. At about two and a half they can associate items with specific brand names.[5] Up to the age of seven, children will generally accept television advertising at face value[6]. Children do not develop the capacity to understand that marketing messages are trying to sell them something until they are about 11 or 12.[7]

Key methods of persuading children to buy or ask adults to buy products or services for them, include the use of premium offers, such as competitions and give-aways, and the use of promotional characters such as cartoons and celebrities. Children’s purchase requests are influenced by these methods and, in particular, the use of promotional characters is positively associated with children’s recognition of, and attitude towards, a product.[8] ‘Advergames’ on the internet draw children to a product or brand through interactive entertainment, taking advantage of the fact that younger children in particular are less able to distinguish between what is advertising and what is core content. These advergames will try to initiate children into a brand and create a ‘brand habit’ for when they are older, if the product is more likely to be used by adults rather than children.[9]

Magazines also advertise in a seamless manner – for example Mizz magazine featured a ‘true story’ of a 17 year old girl’s battle with an undiagnosable skin condition, which has only been alleviated through the use of Simple products. This was adjacent to a competition to find a ‘Teen Simple Star’ who will ‘be rewarded with all sorts of exciting prizes, including a year as the ‘Official Simple Video Blogger’.‘ Whilst the girl’s story may be true, the article does not indicate that it is advertising a product, as do adverts in magazines aimed at adults.[10]

In Consumer Kids: How Big Business Is Grooming Our Children for Profit, Ed Mayo and Agnes Nairn analyse the ways in which marketers recruit children to become ‘brand ambassadors’. The internet is a key tool, with websites collecting information from children and young people either directly or through tracking cookies, which then help marketers target children more effectively. Some websites recruit young people directly to take part in questionnaires and market products to their friends for payment. This technique works because 68% of consumers trust the advice of peers.[11] In effect, children are encouraged to take advantage of their friendships and family relationships to earn money for companies with whom they have no relationship, other than an economic one.

In his acclaimed book, BRANDchild, marketing expert Martin Lindstrom outlines how companies can foster loyalty within young consumers. Tried and tested techniques include making the brand ‘cool’, ‘fun’ and ‘popular’; using toy and cartoon characters, pop stars and celebrities; creating a product ‘story’ or a sense of community; offering a loyalty programme or using product placement. Other methods, however, go beyond cultivating loyalty into the realms of manipulation. These include capitalising on children’s fears of being perceived negatively if they do not have up-to-date/on trend stuff and tapping into the ‘pack leaders’ who others are likely to follow.[12] Nancy Shalek, an experienced marketer, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times saying: ‘Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you’re a loser… Kids are very sensitive to that. If you tell them to buy something, they are resistant. But if you tell them that they’ll be a dork if they don’t, you’ve got their attention. You open up emotional vulnerabilities, and it’s very easy to do with kids because they’re the most emotionally vulnerable.’[13] The governments of the UK and Ireland have concluded that some of these methods are inappropriate for marketing to children and have prohibited their use in relation to children in certain media (see section 5).

As well as targeting children directly and promoting ‘peer to peer’ sales strategies, marketers also target parents through their children, to sell them both children’s and adult goods and services. Children report that they do influence their parents’ purchasing decisions and that parents will buy them what they want as a direct result – six out of ten children report using pestering techniques.[14] Some marketers target parents through appealing to beliefs about good parenting, suggesting that purchasing the goods will demonstrate how good a parent they are.[15] Marketers also target children because children often have higher levels of consumer and technological awareness than their parents and can therefore act as ’conduits from the consumer marketplace into the household, the link between advertisers and the family purse’.[16]

Children’s opinions of the commercial world have been collected in a few studies. In 2005 the National Consumer Council found that children are responsive to marketing, enjoy shopping and care about possessions. 75% of 10 to 12 year olds like shopping, two thirds like popular clothes labels and half think that brands are important. However, some children do feel under pressure to have the ‘right’ stuff; that methods of selling can be intrusive and inappropriate, that they are ripped off and that retailers treat them badly and unfairly.[17]

Interestingly, our research found that parents have mixed feelings about the way advertisers treat children.

Advertising aimed at children treats them like adults

Agree: 34%

Disagree: 48%

Don’t know: 18%

Advertising aimed at children is appropriate to their age

Agree: 43%

Disagree: 41%

Don’t know: 16%

Source: ComRes for Mothers’ Union


The Advertising Association argues that ‘commercially-related factors are powerful enablers of wellbeing’. Children’s wellbeing (defined in terms of how they connect with friends, relax and enjoy entertainment) is enabled though the internet, mobile phones, television, advertising, computer games and magazines.[18] This technology also provides a source of creativity, escapism, help and advice and there is no reason why children should not be able to have fun through the commercial world. However, marketers target these forms of media precisely because they are popular with children, in order to sell to them.

“… as a teacher I see many parents who put themselves in debt to provide expensive items for their children, simply because they do not know how to deal with constant demands for the latest style, phones etc.” - Mothers’ Union member, UK


[1] Advertising Association

[2] David Piachaud, Freedom to be a Child.

[3] Assessment of the Impact of the Commercial World on children’s Wellbeing: TV Media Review 1997 to 2007. Neilsen.

[4] (2009)

[5] Martin Lindstrom, BRANDchild: Remarkable insights in the minds of today’s global kids and their relationships with brands. Kogan Page, 2003.

[6] Findings from the US Surgeon General, in Sharon Beder, Turning Children into Consumers. Medialens, 2009.

[7] Sue Palmer, Toxic Childhood. Orion, 2006.

[8] Kelly, Hattersley, King and Flood, Persuasive food marketing to children: use of cartoons and competitions in Australian commercial television advertisements. Health Promotion International, Vol.23 No.4, August 2008.

[9] Ed Mayo and Agnes Nairn, Consumer Kids.

[10] Mizz magazine, No.658, 5th - 18th August 2010.

[11] Ed Mayo and Agnes Nairn, Consumer Kids.

[12] Martin Lindstrom, BRANDchild.

[13] Ron Harris, Children Who Dress for Excess: Today’s Youngsters Have Become Fixated with Fashion. The Right Look Isn’t Enough – It Also Has to Be Expensive. Los Angeles Times, 12 November 1989.

[14] Ed Mayo and Agnes Nairn, Consumer Kids.

[15] The Impact of the Commercial World on Children’s Wellbeing: Report of an Independent Assessment. DCSF and DCMS, 2009.

[16] Juliet Schor, Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture. Scribner, 2004.

[17] Ed Mayo, Shopping Generation.

[18] Children’s Wellbeing in a Commercial World: A contribution by the Advertising Association to the DCSF enquiry. Advertising Association, 2009.