Advertising and its consequences on children

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riya dhamija
This article is co-authored with Riya Dhameja.

Advertising aims to create artificial needs. Children are often the targets failing to recognise its deleterious consequences.

In an article published in The ArmChair Journal, the author called herself a reluctant fruit-eater as her theel for eating was based on the principle ‘complete pleasure with least effort’. She compared the effort involved in the process of eating a fruit- picking, washing, peeling and cutting to the effort involved in eating chips. The latter is such a comfortable process of simply opening a packet and popping chips right into the mouth (1). This comfort is a value that is marketed in so many forms through advertising in contemporary society.

Advertisements based on the realization of ‘complete pleasure with least effort’ depict momentary pleasure in visually appealing gimmickry. However, the deleterious consequences of consuming these advertised products are overshadowed in the advertising process.  Such advertisements can be seen all around us in different forms including TV commercials, online advertisements, posters and billboards.  The advertisements for products which particularly target children as their market are especially disconcerting. These advertisements often include children themselves in order to promote the product. They may be small 30-seconds or 1-minute clips, but the advertisers are also aware that children have an influence in household purchase decisions, which is why many advertisements feature children in advertisements aimed at households also. This process is so much a part of our world that it does not draw attention to itself while ‘consumers’ do not even realize that we are being advertised to.

Research in educational psychology has confirmed the power of advertising in shaping children’s preferences. This is particularly pronounced until children reach an age by which they develop a capacity for cognitive and attitudinal defence against advertising. But there are two other mental actions in this regard that surpass the cognitive development in young children as per the information processing and developmental stage theories of learning. First is the intellectual ability to distinguish commercial and non-commercial content in an advertisement. The second mental action is the capacity to recognize and interpret persuasive messages objectively. The absence of these two discerning actions in younger children makes them especially vulnerable to getting influenced by advertising (2).

Children’s food and advertising

Packaged food products that are highly processed or contain high calorie and sugar content are marketed as desirable to children, leading to obesity and other health complications in them. Advertisements can also make children cultivate material values which impacts the levels to which values such as happiness, kindness and environmental awareness are internalized by children. Children may associate happiness with commodities and ‘buying more of advertised products’ which nurtures a consumerist worldview. This leads to consumption that is addictive in nature coupled with the development of artificial needs. The next section of this article undertakes an analysis of two advertisements that can potentially develop artificial needs in children. 

Life as a candy

A candy, which contains layers of cream and chocolate along with a toy, is labeled with a playful name in a plastic egg-shaped attractive packing. The candy is marketed through an advertisement, where it is shown as a prize that a mother gives to her children for creating an art work. The two children featured in the advertisement have been shown making the ‘art work’ together. The boy in the advertisement is shown wearing a blue t-shirt while the girl is shown wearing pink t-shirt and a headband. Upon receiving the product as a prize for their work, the children open it with excitement. The product has also been personified as a cartoon. It is further explained that the product is made with cream from cow’s milk, cocoa and wafer bites. It also says that the product contains ‘exciting surprises’ referring to the toy that is offered with each product, which comes in two colors: pink and blue. The blue product contains toys like racing cars while the pink one contains toys like Barbie etc. 

Candy is a highly processed food product. Its ingredients as listed on the body of the toy mention  sugar as the first ingredient and vegetable oils (palm, shea nut and sunflower) as the second. With sugar being the main ingredient, the candy marketed to children is an unhealthy choice, since scientific findings recommend a low sugar diet for children (3) yet the product is marketed as a tasty, cherished and nutritious product containing milk and cocoa. In addition to this, the toy also fascinates young children due to which the product becomes even more attractive. This increases frequent consumption of the product by children which can result in unhealthy outcomes for their physical well-being. 

The advertisement shows children receiving this product as a ‘prize’ in appreciation for their work, a desirable reward for an achievement. The conceptualization of childhood is based on a consumer who ‘deserves happiness’ as a reward.  The notion of happiness here lies not in the creation of art but in the consumption of the product.  The concept of ‘rewards’ and ‘punishments’ as influencers on behaviour emerged from behavioural psychology in the early twentieth century. Even its most illustrious votary psychologist B.F. Skinner later in his life abandoned the idea as research indicated that it tends to lead to harmful emotional by-products. At an age where children have not yet developed an ability to recognize the promotional nature of advertising, they might internalize this message that work implies rewards. Work for the sake of work is so much more liberating, life-affirming and enjoyable; which this advertisement negates completely. Life is not a candy but a much more natural process even in modern times. In addition to this, the choice of colours and toys in the product has been categorized as per narrowly framed prevailing gender stereotypes in our society. Marketing in this manner promotes these societal distortions which children can internalize as gender roles. 

Caregiver as female 

Another advertisement promotes a factory-made chocolate spread for children. It shows a boy asking his mother what he will get for breakfast. The mother responds that there will be chocolate and almonds. Later, she gives him the chocolate spread on bread. The advertisement then goes on to say that the spread contains almonds which makes it nutritious for growing children and chocolate which makes it tasty. It ends with the boy eating it and telling his mother that he loves her.

The opening posture in this advertisement was that the boy asks his mother for breakfast. This is common in many advertisements where mothers are glorified as the ones responsible for caring for children and doing household tasks as if it is the cherry of life. This representation reinforces, legitimizes and strengthens patriarchal gender stereotypes.

The advertised product, a chocolate spread, creates an artificial need since these processed spreads are not natural foods and do not constitute a part of a healthy breakfast. It contains 19g added sugar per serving, which is not naturally occurring sugar and is nutritionally unacceptable and a high amount for consumption by children. It is about the same amount of sugar recommended to be consumed by children in a whole day. The product further comes in a plastic jar, due to which its replacement as a regularly consumed product by children leads to plastic waste as well. The association of the product with happiness, love and family well-being is also a matter of concern. The fact that the child feels happy after eating the product and its advertising tagline contain the words ‘goodness’ as well as ‘happiness’ seeks to establish a link between the product and happiness. The underlying idea presented in the advertisement is of consumption as the basis of happiness which gives out the message that the product is a means to attain happiness, and thus, leads to an increase in its consumption. This type of food consumption not only generates an artificial need but can also distort the idea of what leads to happiness in children. 

Advertisements are inherently promotional in nature and seek to create artificial needs in order to bait the consumer. The ‘complete pleasure with least effort’ comfort associated with the two food product advertisements analyzed above reflects how attractive presentation restricts viewers from pausing to examine whether the consumption is necessary at all. This is particularly pronounced for children who are not aware of the promotional intent of advertisements. In a way, children are reduced to becoming mere consumer of products being advertised.


  1. Sri Charitha Natta. (2019, November 9). Fruit-eating: An apple a day? Go Away!? The Armchair Journal. Retrieved November 9, 2019, from 
  2.  Moore, E. S.  (2004) Children and the changing world of advertising. Journal of Business Ethics,  Vol. 52 No.2, pp. 161-167 
  3. McGuire, S. (2015). Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee, Washington D.C.: Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. 
  4. Skinner, B.F. (1957). Verbal Behaviour. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Image Credit: Raising Children Network

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