Are Your Children Ready for the Internet’s Advertising Onslaught?

If you and your kids think you are constantly seeing and hearing more ads online you’re right. But unless your kids can identify a phish[i] from a fish, recognize the trustworthiness of advertisers’ claims and detect how ads are designed to shift and manipulate consumers’ perceptions, they won’t be able to understand that the bombardment of commercial messages are biased and intended to persuade them.  

Follow the money

There has been a marked increase in the amount of time kids spend online. Research from the National Cyber Security Alliance[ii] found kids are spending 33 percent of their day – or 50 percent – of their waking hours online.

At the same time, advertisers have increased the amount they are spending to target each online user. According to an April 2012 study by GroupM[iii] the average online advertising investment per online user has doubled from 2006-2011. Last year, advertisers in the U.S. spent an estimated $162 per-person. In 2012 this spending is predicted to rise to $174.

In 2011, online advertising revenues reached a record $31.7 billion and now exceed the ad revenue of Cable TV, according to a report by the Internet Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers[iv].

Among the channels for online advertising, search still claims the lion’s share, but mobile advertising is growing the fastest[v]. In the U.S., mobile media advertising saw triple-digit growth between 2010 and 2011 when ad spending reached $6.3 billion; and this is expected to nearly double to $11.6 billion in 2012.

That is a lot of money being spent to influence internet users. While most advertisers adhere to nationally regulated and industry standards when marketing to children, there are at least 7.5 million kids 12-years-old or younger[vi] using sites like Facebook whose ads are not intended for children. These ads target adults, with content about alcohol and gambling, contraceptives, subscriptions services, etc.

Given this landscape, youth need to be armed with a basic understanding of advertising techniques and the skills needed to evaluate advertising content – especially when ads are smoothly implanted within services.

Understand the types of online advertising[vii]

To teach your children how to identify and evaluate ads, here’s a basic overview of the types of ads that they encounter online, some types inherently have a far greater opportunities to persuade youth than others, and some can make it very difficult for a child to identify what they’re seeing is actually an ad at all.

  • Text ads are just simple text-based advertisements with links taking you to the advertiser’s site. These do not include images.
  • Display ads use visuals to quickly catch the attention of website visitors. They come in any shape and size, including banners, full-page ads, large boxes and so on.
  • Email ads, classified ads and newsletter advertising are sent by companies to people who have asked to receive their content.  Advertisements from entities you did not request information from are called spam, or junk mail, and they are likely to be malicious.
  • Pop-up ads open up in a new website window when you land on some websites. These may be simple pop-ups, or be floating ads or slide-in ads that require you to click to close them.
  • Flash / DHTML ads use animation and other motion graphics. These may be placed inside display ads, or they can function like pop-up ads that simply appear before users on some sites.
  • Interstitial ads are ones that appear when you click between web pages. Typically you can’t click off of these ads and have to wait for them to finish before your destination page appears.
  • Video ads take the concept of Flash ads to the next level, allowing advertisers to either create their own standalone video to be shown or to incorporate their video clip into videos consumers want to view.
  • On-site sponsorships are ads that usually just show a company’s logo to let viewers identify that the company sponsors the content. If the content is something the viewer likes, this helps build a positive association with the company.
  • Advertorials appear to contain objectively written opinions featured on websites but are designed to promote products and services related to the website’s content.
  • In-app ads are embedded directly into applications like games where they are particularly hard to spot; some games are built entirely by the company for the sole purpose of leveraging the game as advertising. This is a particularly common tactic for advertising on mobile phones and tablet devices where consumers download lots of applications.

In addition to the many types of advertising, advertisers use three primary methods to target users:

  • Contextually targeted ads are presented based on the content or site a user visits. For example, if you search on the term diets, the ads in the search results will be for diet plans. 
  • Behaviorally targeted ads use a number of online factors known about you such as online purchases, searches and your browsing history. Additional factors include your age, gender, etc. For example, if you looked at a pair of shoes on one site but didn’t buy them, ads for those shoes may seem to be stalking you wherever you go online.
  • Location-based ads, also called geo-targeting, are based on your current location to entice you with purchases and offers in your immediate area.  

Talking to kids about the intent and effects of advertising

Your goal as parents is to help raise your child’s awareness of advertising and to help them make wise decisions. Kids over the age of six or seven quickly grasp advertising tactics when you talk about what ads do, so start early with your conversations to help them become aware of commercial messages, and the expanding commercialism of youth. 

Start by explaining that advertising plays on feelings by creating ads that make people believe their products are going to make us feel better, have more fun, be prettier or stronger, or in some way be better.  Advertisers do this by using a few common tricks, like making claims that make us feel good or scared or make us believe we need to hurry to buy something before the “sale” ends.

Sometimes advertisers use an authoritative tone by saying things like “studies have shown” or “doctors recommend.” Other times, they use fun cartoon characters, popular actors or actresses to make us think that a product must be good.   Some ads use sexuality to sell their product, making users believe that beautiful people use the product, and if they use the product maybe we’ll be beautiful as well.

An exercise you can do with your child

Find an advertisement that you can look at with your child and help him or her identify what the ad is doing to make the brand’s product seem like something everyone needs. Do advertisers make the product look bigger (often done with toy ads)?  Do the people in the picture look happy and smiling (suggesting if you had the product you too would be happy and smiling)? Help your child identify the goal of the ad – is it to sell something, to make you feel better about the brand, to shape your opinion? Then assist your kid in learning how to research the claims in ads to identify those parts that are true and which parts are exaggerations.

Help your kids understand that advertising creates unneeded necessities (i.e., things they don’t need and perhaps never knew about but that they suddenly feel they must have).

Talk about the types of advertising and help them understand they should never click on links, because no matter how good the ad looks it may be malicious and will infect their phone or computer with malware.  According to Consumer Reports, one-third of households surveyed had experienced a malicious software infection in the previous year. All told, they estimate that malware cost consumers $2.3 billion last year and caused them to replace 1.3 million PCs.

It will be very helpful for your kids to install a tool that will flag risky search results. This way, when they search for something they’ve seen in an ad, or just search in general, they’ll have technology helping them identify which sites are riddled with malware and which sites are “clean.”

Let your kids compare the types of ads, and help them judge those types that are harder to spot. (In general, as you go down the list of ad types, the ads become more difficult to discern.)

Help older children think about how the ad was targeted to them. Was it contextually targeted? Was it targeted towards them based on previous actions they’ve taken (behaviorally targeted)? Or is it location based? Kids really get an eye opener as they realize how these ads are relying on their personal information and actions to determine what they see.

Another fun learning tool is to have your child search a term and compare it to what you see when you do the same search. Are the results different? Are the ads you see different? 

Providing this advertising education will help your children be safer and smarter about advertising manipulation, keep your devices safer, and limit the overexposure of your family’s personal information privacy.



[i] The fraudulent practice of sending e-mails claiming to be from legitimate companies  to fool individuals to revealing personal information the criminal can use to commit ID theft.

[vi] Consumer Reports study in July of 2011, found that at least  or under were using Facebook – and that 5 million of these kids were 10 or younger

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