How Much is Your Child’s Brain Worth?

She was not pleased with the interuption.

The spread of misinformation has become a popular topic in light of recent events, but there is another aspect to this story that relates directly to us as marketers. One that we can actually do something about. There is no value in news created solely to mislead people, but what about advertising indistinguishable from real news articles? More importantly, what are the ramifications to our children and the future they represent?

According to a recent Stanford University Study, over 80% of the middle school children they tested couldn’t tell the difference between sponsored posts and real news. Nearly four out of 10 high school students in the study saw no reason to doubt the authenticity of a photo reportedly depicting mutated flowers near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, despite the absence of any location information for the photo.

Do you believe in Big Foot or the Loch Ness monster because of a blurry photo you saw on television? Today’s children, mine and yours, are heavily influenced by what they see, whether it is factual news or marketing tactics.

My oldest daughter’s first exposure to television commercials was equal parts hilarious and fascinating. She reacted the way you might if you’d ordered a chicken sandwich and the restaurant served you a dirty boot. She demanded her program back and couldn’t believe her show was interrupted so arbitrarily for no reason.

My wife and I cut the cable cord long before our children were born so the world they grew up in was one devoid of marketing to a large degree. Grandma, on the other hand, still has cable.

It’s not just other people’s children who are seeing these ads, it’s your children too. The American Psychological Association reports advertisers spend more than $12 billion per year on youth advertising, exposing children to over 40,000 commercials each year. Even the children of socially conscious, cord-cutting marketers are seeing commercials when they visit friends and family. That’s the reality we currently live in.

I say this with the understanding that we also can’t, and shouldn’t, achieve a zero sum approach to advertising. Marketing, advertising, and public relations all serve a purpose that, when done ethically, benefits everyone. It’s a matter of swinging the pendulum back towards the ethical consideration of our audience, especially when talking about children.

Influence is not inherently a bad thing, but the way we use it can be. We want our children to be more active and develop healthy lifestyle choices. We want them to be more involved in their communities and more engaged in positive civic duties. We need them to be the greatest versions of themselves they can be. The brightness of our future depends on their ability to thrive and excel in this world.

I know the pressure is on us to perform, to get fast results, but we can’t give in to that pressure at the expense of our children. We risk trading the grand potential of our future for the fleeting short term gains of today if we do.

I believe we can do our jobs within the boundaries of a socially responsible system. One that values building meaningful relationships over fast gains and the “growth at all cost” mentality.

If a toy company committed itself to creating media that influenced children in a positive way, they would attract the attention of every concerned parent in this country. Who do you think these parents will give their money to if given the choice? We’ve all seen the data on buying habits, and know that when given the choice, people support ethical businesses. You may have fooled little Timmy into thinking he needs whatever toy you’re pushing, but Timmy isn’t the one with the money.

Additionally, the current television advertising model will likely change dramatically in the next 10 years. The way my daughter reacted to those commercials got me thinking. She may learn to tolerate them over time, but will she? What does it mean for marketers if an entire generation of young adults simply hate advertising? Influencer marketing and sponsored posts are often touted as the answer to this question. This only shifts the problem, now we have to deal with the ramifications of those types of ads and what they mean for our future as a whole.

When children can’t tell the difference between an advertisement or a legitimate news story, that’s a problem. As industry professionals, we are in a direct position to do something about this problem. We have the ability to guide businesses towards socially responsible marketing practices. We can choose not to create things to the detriment of society. We can choose not to buy into the rhetoric, and to respect our audience. It’s our choice, and has always been our choice. The question you need to ask yourself is simple: Do you want to be the one who creates the ads misleading your own children?