Marketers Are Turning Kids Into Crass Consumers

Stephanie Gruner Buckley
Photo by Chelse Daniel on Unsplash

A friend’s teenage daughter wants to inject Botox under her arms to stop herself from sweating. The scary thing — and there are many scary things about this — is that at 14 she’s thinking about Botox and armpits at all.

She heard about this procedure not from a friend or on TikTok or even YouTube. It popped up on her screen as an ad, in the way that promotions for comfy slippers and hip flexibility exercises pop up on mine.

My own daughter, at 12, is totally into makeup. She’s a huge fan of YouTube celebrity James Charles and has repeatedly asked for his signature makeup palette. I’ve tried to be cool with this, even though I hate makeup, barely use it myself, and refuse to let her wear it outside the house. I do let her experiment with makeup at home, and even on me sometimes. (She’s better with makeup than I am, which could come in handy one day).

Hardly a day goes by that my daughter doesn’t ask for a new top from Brandy Melville or an app, or a few weeks ago, it was a Starbucks’ Frappuccino, and could she please also get the Starbucks’ app. It's hardly surprising given the relentless pitching to kids that takes place on the device in their hands.

Marketing to Kids

As kids spend more time online, marketers are shifting ad dollars from TV to internet-connected devices.

Kids are tracked and targeted online in increasingly sophisticated and manipulative ways. This under-regulated area relies on huge amounts of personal data (purchase history, preference, locations, etc. to determine taste), and kids tend to forget to set privacy settings. Or fail to appreciate why they matter.

What’s lagging behind: ethical discussions and laws to protect kids — not to mention their weary parents — from aggressive marketers.

Advertisers get that the earlier you hook a kid, the more likely it is they will be a customer for years to come. Little kids — many of whom don’t recognize they’re being sold to — make easy prey.

Older kids are easy to exploit too. The tween/teen brain responds to stimulation, and their emotions are easily stirred. They tend to crave products that help them feel they fit in — think messages around body image. Marketers can tap these insecurities and feelings of inadequacy to sell kids products they don’t need.

It’s here that parents should be most concerned. A sense of body image develops at a tender age. Social media is extremely influential — and not in a good way. Teenage girls say that social media — not their parents, or looking in a mirror, or even how their clothes fit — most affects how they feel about their bodies. Unfortunately, the perfect bodies they see online (like with TV and in magazines) don’t match reality. The pressure for kids to meet underweight air-brushed model standards can lead to unhealthy eating habits, low self-esteem, depression and even suicide.

Kids Selling to Other Kids

A study pre-Covid showed social media influencer income soaring as companies increasingly rely on sponsored content via social media such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
Izea / BBC

While some experts have questioned whether online marketing influencers are on the decline, tweens my daughter’s age are easily swayed by their newfound heroes on TikTok and YouTube. If Charli D’Amelio has it; my daughter wants it.

The situation is getting worse as companies encourage young consumers to sell stuff to each other by getting them to post Instagram photos of themselves with the products.

Lately I’ve noticed that even on walks with my child, it’s all about consumption. After agreeing to stop by Starbucks last weekend, my daughter asked me to photograph her drinking her Frappuccino so she could post it on Instagram.

I guess I should be grateful. At least she hasn’t seen the Botox armpit ad yet.

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Writer, mom, wife, news junkie (not necessarily in that order). Londoner and native Floridian.


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