Games, videos, news stories, social media posts and memes. Online advertisers often disguise their marketing messages as entertainment or information. You may know the difference, but do children?

Online advertisers are using increasingly sophisticated marketing techniques, making it harder for young people to recognise when they are being sold to. The Advertising Standards Authority currently recommends that sponsored social media posts include hashtags such as #ad but these are not mandatory. Often, sponsored social media posts aren’t labelled as advertising at all, instead tagging, mentioning or thanking a brand can be deemed sufficient.

Low awareness of sponsored posts and search

Many of the young people we work with with at The Digital Life Skills Company are definitely not aware posts are sponsored. They genuinely believe the opinions are an honest reflection of the poster’s views – why wouldn’t they be?

When advertising is labelled, it is often so discreet that young people don’t spot it. Less than a quarter of 8-11s and only one-third of 12-15s can correctly identify sponsored links on Google, even though they feature the word ‘Ad’ in a coloured box.

Influencers, native advertising and other subtle marketing techniques

Marketers increasingly make use of social media to promote their brands because young consumers are more likely to look to YouTubers, bloggers and other influencers for purchasing advice.  Yet one in three online users age 12-15 are unaware that vloggers may be paid to endorse a product.

Another growing sector is “native” advertising, where text and images are designed to look like part of the editorial page. Native advertising is widely accepted to be more effective than straight ads – as Adweek proclaims “they won’t even know you’re advertising”.

Pressure to consume

Young people need to be informed on these discreet forms of advertising, as well as more covert techniques such as tobacco companies’ use of social media stars to target young people so they don’t feel pressured to buy.  They may also spend more than they can afford. The number of younger people seeking debt advice has been increasing in recent years with up to 8.3 million people in the UK unable to pay off debts or household bills. Problem debts like these leave people unable to pay for the essentials, damage their future prospects and impact mental health and well-being.

Impact on well-being

Too much advertising can teach kids to judge their self-worth by what they own, and make them feel angry, anxious or depressed. Various studies show that materialistic attitudes (wanting more and more material things) can affect well-being by creating a sense of loneliness and damaging self-esteem or relationships.

Children are particularly susceptible to marketing messages.  Personal devices (smartphones, tablets, smart and other gadgets) enable companies to reach youngsters directly – and more persuasively – than ever before.  Branded websites, advergames, viral ads and social media marketing have blurred the lines between entertainment, information and advertising, making it difficult to recognise commercial content.

Look behind the media

You can help young people to be media-savvy by pointing out hidden advertising.  Encourage them to consider the purpose behind the digital media they see by asking “Who created this and why? What are they trying to persuade people to think, feel, or do?”

This will help them to think critically about the advertising they are exposed to, resist the damaging belief that they are what they own, and be smarter consumers.

Read next

Teach Your Child To Spot Hidden Advertising Online

How To Be Ad-Aware (Conversations To Have With Your Child)

Is Your Class Ad-Savvy? 7 Ideas for Teachers 

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