How do you explain adverts to your kids?

When I was pregnant with Flea, I read a few books about children and TV that freaked me out enough that I decided I didn’t want her to watch TV when she was young.

It's a personal choice, and one that is a lot easier to make when you’re a single parent with one child, I know. But the result was Flea didn’t watch TV at all until she was almost four, when I bought her a few films on DVD, which she’s free to watch when she chooses. I've written before about how being a no-TV household worked for us.

The funny thing is that TV isn’t part of Flea's daily routine so she rarely asks to watch a movie – we can go for weeks without turning on the TV at home. But sometimes we do curl up together to watch a movie, and it's something we really enjoy.

Away from home, though, I’ve been more relaxed. I taught Flea that different families do things differently, there's no one right way of doing things, and I never wanted Flea to feel TV was ‘bad’ or ‘forbidden’. So she has seen TV if it's been on when she's visited friends' houses or stayed with her grandparents.

In the past couple of months, it’s become abundantly clear that my parents have started to let Flea watch some of the channels for bigger kids rather than just CBeebies. I know this because I now get to have conversations like this with my five-year-old:

“Mummy, are you cleaning the floor?”


“Are you using Flash All in One?”

“Erm, no. It’s just floor cleaner.”

“You should use Flash All in One, it makes your floor all shiny.”

We’ve also had this conversation:

“Mummy, please may I have some pyjama pants?”


“PYJAMA PANTS.  They’re from Dry Nites.”

 “Flea, they’re nappies. You haven’t worn a nappy since you were three.”

“No, they’re for big kids and they keep you dry all night.”

What’s fascinating about this is just how unquestioningly Flea absorbs those messages and how she can parrot them back at me, days and sometimes weeks later. She spent five minutes today telling me that she can ‘swish’ her hair just like the woman on TV, and she can point out Cheese Strings in the supermarket and tell me "they're just cheese".

Honestly? It concerns me.

I don’t like that my child is so receptive to these brand messages. I’m not sure she really understands my explanations about editing and how people deliberately shoot commercials to make things look more fun and exciting than they really are. If I try and tell her that commercials don't always tell the whole truth about a product, she looks confused. I suspect my words hold little sway against bright colours and cute logos and catchy jingles.

Part of me is inclined to solve the problem by asking my parents not to allow Flea to watch commercial TV at all until she’s old enough to truly understand the fakery and manipulation  – and I’m sure they’d be fine with that. But I don’t like imposing my rules on their household; it doesn’t seem grateful when they’re helping me out with free babysitting.

How do you explain ads to your kids?


Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

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  1. 2nd January 2011 / 1:18 am

    We are also pretty much tv free – but ads are everywhere… I am continuously surprised at my kids gullibility. Just from a visit to the store I discover that the washing powder I use is no good – there is another that washes whiter and brighter… it makes them itch but that’s ok!!! I should have done all my Christmas shopping at a particular store that has unbeatable prices stamped on its shopping bags. I have chosen to just lightly inform them and have a chortle at the blatant lies as we expose them one by one by one… chipping away at the wall of mass marketing one little slogan at a time!!!

  2. 2nd January 2011 / 1:32 am

    We’re also mostly a no TV household and the kids never watch children’s TV. But, ocassionally they will come home from being out with their Papa when I am watching somthing and almost without fail Milla (3.5) is mesmerised by the ads. These are fleeting incidents and if I were quicker with the remote then they wouldn’t exist. A relative did buy her a magazine subscription which was more suitable for the 8+ audience and it worried me that she couldn’t distinguish the editorial from the adverts.
    I tell her that ads are designed to catch our attention, look fun and get us to think we need to buy something we don’t need. I comment on what we are seeing but I wonder how long my influence will be more powerful than the advertisers.

  3. 2nd January 2011 / 2:14 am

    Yes, I guess if you expose one as being blatantly untrue, perhaps it chips away at their natural inclination to trust…

  4. 2nd January 2011 / 2:15 am

    I’ve got a similar view – I think it’s tough because companies have spent a shedload of money ensuring that their message is more compelling than mine.

  5. 2nd January 2011 / 9:45 am

    We are a total TV household, tbh it never goes off. I remember listening to Shami Chakrabati speak once and she said the same thing of her house when she was growing up. The TV was always on, but mainly the news, it changed her life and formed her attitudes. In a good way. The amount of TV my kids demand does worry me but then my family are a very media family, my father is a film producer and I remember our TV being on a lot. In terms of the adverts, I just brush them off and explain that there are lots of different things equally as good. I think because they have been exposed to so much they realise the difference between the ads and the programmes and tbh they dont pay a lot of attention to them.
    Its hard because children will always find influences other than you, if she isnt influenced by the ads on the TV it will be things the kids have at school and the attitudes that the kids have inherited from their parents. Its just part of growing up I think and not something to worry about too much.

  6. Him Up North
    2nd January 2011 / 11:12 am

    Interesting comment from Zooarchaeologist about Shami Chakrabati. Ms. Chakrabati is a year older than me and will have grown up with only three (then eventually four) channels. It’s a bit different today with digital choice at our fingertips. I’m no expert, but I suspect back then it was a totally different ballgame with regard to marketing.
    My kids pick stuff up from ads too. However they do not get a say in what we buy or which brands we use. Yes they are aware of Cillit Bang and Go Compare because of their impact. If they ask whether we use these brands they get a yes/no answer.
    I suspect your attitude to TV in general, worthy as it is, will be sorely tested as Flea gets older and her circle of friends grows larger and more diverse. Pester power is one thing; when it is fed by peer pressure it is far worse.

  7. 2nd January 2011 / 12:49 pm

    I’m one of those who’s tv is on practically all day, well, during the holidays at least! It’s either kids tv, or the Wii, or the Xbox. Both boys seem to know which bits are adverts and which are the actual program.
    Maybe it’s because Flea’s not used to watching tv that she takes these adverts so seriously when she sees them? Just a thought! 🙂

  8. 2nd January 2011 / 12:58 pm

    I don’t find peer pressure overly hard to challenge – I’ve always just explained that different families do things differently and in our house we follow my rules, because I’m the boss. I plan to use this line for the next decade, at least 😉
    It’s not so much that I don’t expect (or want) Flea to have other influences. It’s just that there’s a world of difference between being influenced by the kids in her class or her cousins or her teachers and being influenced by a multi-million pound advertising campaign designed to basically make her feel there’s a gap in her life that can be filled by buying Product X.

  9. 2nd January 2011 / 1:01 pm

    I agree that it’s very easy to impose your wishes on a 3 or 4 year old – less so on a 12 year old. All the more reason to enjoy my one-parent despotic regime while I can…
    I don’t necessarily think though that my attitude to TV in general will change. As an adult, I watch very little TV. I didn’t watch that much as a kid, either. I tend to have other things I prefer to do. And I do think Flea is broadly the same – given a free choice of what to do with a spare afternoon at home, she will ask to read a book.
    TV certainly isn’t forbidden, and she has a Wii console too – in the year she’s owned it, I think she’s played on it four or five times, at most.

  10. 2nd January 2011 / 1:03 pm

    Did you ever talk to your boys about ads, though?
    I guess I just wish Flea was one or two years older so I could explain better to her what commercials ARE, and what they’re not. Flea (bless her) just struggles to understand that something on TV would tell you something that isn’t completely true.

  11. june seghni
    2nd January 2011 / 2:13 pm

    I’ve always told my 6 year-old that adverts are made to get us to buy things; toy adverts are especially bad or anything where several sets are required to produce the model shown on the’s getting better now she can read as I can point these things out to her..
    All this doesn’t stop her asking for things-I’m a single parent and not working and it breaks my heart when she says ‘can we go to Disneyland?’ after the latest glossy commercial…I feel I’m always saying ‘we can’t
    afford it..’
    We nearly always watch TV together and it is just a case of talking about things as they arise

  12. 2nd January 2011 / 3:32 pm

    When my kids were little they watched Nick Jnr (we haven’t had it for 5 years or more now, so my youngest daughter doesn’t remember it at all) and they had masses of adverts on, most notably ones for money lending – which used to regularly have them suggesting to me I take out a loan on my home to give me more money etc. And a few times, we indulged them in the toy fad of the moment when they obsessed – most notably singing Erica and Annalise Barbie dolls. I never censored tv when they were little (I had high ideals but I was lazy/constantly pregnant and exhausted!)
    Funnily enough, maybe because we always talked about adverts, talked about what the money lending really meant and whether those toys were really as good as they were made out to be, my kids are utterly unaffected by it all now. They see through the toy ads and never ask for that sort of stuff (we did have a version of it this year when Nintendogs puppy packaging in Tesco led them to believe toy dogs would be great and they discovered on Xmas day they really were not) and they generally turn tv off totally. And don’t like commercial stations mainly because they’ve grown up with a general eye rolling objection to the manipulation.
    It wasn’t my plan, I taken no credit for it, but having exposure and conversation about that element of real life does appear to have made them all very balanced about it. And you might as well learn that a 6 years old as 26 – saves a lot of money on face creams that won’t actually do you any good 🙂

  13. 2nd January 2011 / 5:07 pm

    We’ve watched quite a bit of television since Eldest was born and I have no regrets – she’s learned quite a bit from it and knows what she likes. Obviously we screen things – there are shows I don’t let her watch even though they are children’s programmes (Horrid Henry springs to mind, which strikes me as the vilest programme on earth. Luckily she has grown out of even wanting it on).
    We don’t tend to watch commercial TV live – we’ll record films to watch together and then forward past the ads. Eldest does the same when she’s watching on her own or with her sister – she knows they’ve nothing to interest her.
    A few years ago Eldest really wanted to go to MacDonalds because her friends went there and because she kept seeing it advertised. We told her the facts about the food there and we talked about her choices but in the end the desire to find out for herself was still massive. So we went. And she found it a huge letdown, and hasn’t asked to go since. I don’t think children always have to be protected from bad choices – they can learn from mistakes as well as we can.
    I have a ten year old and a child not that different in age to Flea, and things have changed massively for Eldest. Not only is there peer pressure to buy things, but also to know what is going on in particular shows. Sadly you’re going to need a more sophisticated line if you want it to last the next decade…

  14. 2nd January 2011 / 8:06 pm

    I agree that peer pressure is the hardest. Monkey is in year 1 and has come home this term asking why we don’t watch X-Factor and why couldn’t he watch it? Pretty much all his friends did so I guess he felt he was missing out. Next year is going to be fun.
    I have always been relatively relaxed about the television. We have it on a fair amount but often have it turned off. As babies, the kids watched CBeebies a fair bit (ad free) and recently have been right into Playhouse Disney (only Disney ads) but have seen ads on other channels. Toy ads used to drive me scatty but they do seem to notice what is and isn’t an advert. They occasionally ask me for something that they have seen on the telly but generally they don’t these days.
    I am fairly sure that we have had discussions about adverts in the past so they have grown up understanding that they are different. They sometimes ask why we can’t buy certain things (the latest was why couldn’t we get a new kitchen after a couple of ads for January sales featuring kitchens appeared at the same time). I just explain that things cost money, that we don’t necessarily have. I guess it’s like Merry’s kids; we’ve always discussed them if necessary and they innately understand what they are and that they are made to make you want things, but that doesn’t mean they are true.
    TBH, I am more bothered about things that are far less overt and more subtle than out and out advertising, like sponsorships of things in schools, so brand names get in there, that sort of thing. At least an ad is obvious in its purpose – sponsorship is far more subtle and less easy for a child to spot as “advertising”. Ads get everywhere these days. Children are bombarded with brand names on everything so I think it’s better to get our children to live with it and learn about it than try to remove it because I think that’s unachievable.

  15. 2nd January 2011 / 10:30 pm

    My son had his first great lesson about ads when he really wanted a pair of Geox shoes and they didn’t shoot steam out of their soles. He thought they would because they do in the advert. We have a lot of conversations about how they’re lies. But then mainly I only allow them to watch CBeebies when they watch TV and that doesn’t have adverts. It’s a tough thing, though. Now he does go “Oh adverts lie.”

  16. 2nd January 2011 / 11:28 pm

    Yes, I’m a single parent too, and it’s a tricky balance. Flea will often ask for something and say, “Is it very expensive, Mummy?” She knows how to read price labels. I’m glad in one way because of course I want her to know money is a finite resource and we choose what to spend it on, but I don’t want her to have an anxious childhood and feel we can’t have the things we need.

  17. 2nd January 2011 / 11:29 pm

    Perhaps I’m not giving Flea enough credit – but she does seem to really struggle to understand that ads aren’t real, or that things can be made to look different on TV.

  18. 2nd January 2011 / 11:30 pm

    We’ve had a similar issue with McDonalds and I’ve had very similar conversations with Flea – and when it came down to it one day and I said, “okay, let’s go” she didn’t want to! Kids. Weird little creatures.

  19. 2nd January 2011 / 11:30 pm

    Ooh, yes, I agree about sponsorship – it’s very tricky to help kids understand that when it isn’t a clearly commercial message.

  20. 2nd January 2011 / 11:31 pm

    Oh, bless, I would have been gutted about the no steam in my shoes!

  21. Geeky Mummy
    3rd January 2011 / 8:43 am

    I have always been quite relaxed about TV letting Geeky Daughter watch quite a lot of TV but that said we started when she was only a few months old watching baby Einstein dvds. She absorbed it like a sponge, and I am certain that it has contributed to her early development e.g. learning all colours by the age of 18 months. But I am strict on what she is allowed to watch, initially only cbeebies and only since she has turned 6 has she had more of a free reign. The quality of baby / kids tv is amazing, much better than when we were kids.
    I am ok with the ads as whilst she is influenced it gives us an opportunity to a) teach about ads and b) not give her everything she asks for and try and explain the concept of money.
    I figure the younger we deal with it, the longer we have to teach her whilst we still have influence over her. Not to mention the educational value she gets from watching TV. I look at it as a good thing that your daughter is reciting, gives you an opportunity to discuss which is better than quietly absorbing.

  22. Nikki
    3rd January 2011 / 2:29 pm

    Interesting post Sally. My two watch a little TV but not much and they still pick up on the ads and can sing along to a couple of theme tunes – ho hum. However they don’t totally understand what the ad is trying to achieve (ha ha ad guys) so it has little impact other than adding a tune or two to their memory bank. My 4 yr old son looks at the toy ads and sighs dramatically saying: “Oh that’s just rubbish” or “That’s just ridiculously expensive” – I have trained him well 🙂
    That said, I don’t and refuse to buy my kids DS’s, we have no Wii, playstation or console of any sort (trying to preserve their little digits and keep them arthritius free for as long as poss) – but its all a case of each to their own I guess.
    I wouldn’t get too hung up on the ads though – the more you keep something from them the more curious she may be. She’s also exposed to ads whenever you go out shopping, to the cinema etc – you’re just not as consciously aware of it.
    Great news she’d rather read a book though! Well done you. 🙂

  23. 3rd January 2011 / 3:35 pm

    When my oldest two were young, we watched almost no TV and the TV we did allow them was solely DVDs we chose for them. We still don’t let any of them watch much and luckily we have DVR so we only record the shows we allow them to see. However, my oldest son is now 7 and he is the King of the Infomercial. He loves them. He will watch them rather than an actual program on TV. He knows a few by heart. We’ve told him over and over that a lot of the products are just garbage and don’t work nearly the way they appear on TV. Thankfully, he did get a ridiculous toy from a classmate on his birthday that he saw on on Infomercial and when it broke on Day 2, he realized, all on his own, that advertising is NOT what it’s cracked up to be.
    However, I would be a complete hypocrite if I didn’t also ‘fess up to you that he also woke me one morning expounding on the joys of the Shark Steam Mop. And I bought it. And it rocks! And we use it CONSTANTLY and my floors have never been cleaner. So… um…. yeah. Maybe his obsession isn’t all bad… 🙂

  24. 3rd January 2011 / 5:26 pm

    The difference between the TV advertising we grew up with and the TV advertising of today is vast. The level of sophistication and effort that goes into making children buy is exceptional and far more manipulative than when we were younger. That said, still feel sore that I wasn’t allowed those Clarks Magic Steps shoes when I was a kid… (you know you love that ad:

  25. 3rd January 2011 / 5:28 pm

    Oh, I always, always wantd a Mr Frosty – they looked so FANTASTIC on TV and I was never allowed one. Sob. Course, I look at them now and realise just how rubbish they were, but still….
    You’re right, though, TV advertising now is so subtle and manipulative and part of me thinks your average 5 year old just isn’t equipped to withstand that sort of pressure. Well, of course they’re not – otherwise brands wouldn’t be spending the sort of money they’re spending on marketing and advertising.

  26. 3rd January 2011 / 5:34 pm

    Exactly, I am unconditional the ads promise social inclusion, emotional well being, self worth dependant on their products.

  27. 3rd January 2011 / 9:16 pm

    She’s really little though; it will come with time and conversation I guess.

  28. Craig McGill
    4th January 2011 / 10:46 am

    I’m not a TV fan – I would have thrown the box out until the kids were five to be honest – but the wife said that was a tad draconian. So we gave it a go, treating it like we would anything else, just accepting that it’s there.
    Junior 1 – now 6 – has had little problem. She accepts that adverts are people saying ‘we made this, please buy it’ but that you don’t need to buy it (at least that was my dscription of things to her). To be fair though, TV doesn’t play a big part in her life. She’ll watch it but she would rather play with her toys or draw – unless she’s sick and then it’s a blanket, curled up on the couch.
    The one big issue I have – and I’ve raised it with the wife time and time again – is that I don’t think shows that are a tad dodgy should be watched while kids are up so things like Friends and Hollyoaks should be kicked into touch/recorded until the kids are sleeping. Wife disagrees and it’s caused a few issues from time to time.

  29. 4th January 2011 / 8:56 pm

    haha, Eliza is 3 and she asks me for everything in the ads but so far she doesn’t want or expect me to follow through on it. However I have now switched to DVDs as I do think some TV is good for downtime, it’s just my thing and I don’t have a problem with it, but ads are different. I actually find them really offensive as an adult and I don’t want my kids watching them. So we do DVDs now which is good as I can choose what they watch. I’m not averse to Cbeebies though. No ads.

  30. 4th January 2011 / 11:49 pm

    Great discussion, and it’s something that has been a problem for generations.
    Apparently I shocked my Mum at an early age by racing into her after watching some TV to exclaim “Mummy, Mummy, you MUST buy new Aquafresh!!”. At that point ITV was banned until I was much, much older.
    The geekdaughter never watches commercial television. Pretty much everything she watches is pre-recorded, and I have the ability to edit out adverts if I need to (tbh we don’t really watch anything that has adverts anyway). I am apprehensive of how much peer pressure she will face as she grows older, and I’m watching this discussion for any hints and tips to help me cope with that!

  31. Javlaas Baby Store
    11th January 2011 / 9:07 am

    Hi, great article. I know exactly what you mean, I get asked if I am buying a new car nearly everyday now and a new phone, and insurance and…….

  32. 20th January 2011 / 12:26 am

    Very interesting discussion. My kids have only really watched TV without ads -CBeebies in the UK and Nick Jr in the US, which unlike the British version is ad-free.
    When we do, occasionally, watch a film or something with ads, they complain bitterly and ask me to fast forward them – like we do at the beginning of DVDs. The only ads they’ve ever actually listened to and asked about are trailers for other TV programmes which they know and recognise. Mostly they see ads as an annoyance – long may it continue (although hypocritically I make my living from writing about advertising….oh well.)