From Black Friday until the end of December, the United States is plunged into a shopping frenzy that seems to get wilder and crazier every year. Christmas Eve used to mark the end of the “holiday shopping season,” but these days it seems there’s a respectful pause for 24 hours and then the frenzy continues with after-Christmas blowout sales. Some Americans may shop themselves into debt, even resorting to violence, in order to stockpile toys, electronics, clothing, jewelry, toiletries, and other “stuff” they can ill afford and often don’t even know they want until advertisers persuade them that they do.

In order to get people into the malls and online shops, advertisers blare their messages over television, radio and Internet. They plaster nearly every inch of real estate—including cyberspace—with their messages. Ads have infiltrated our places of business and our schools, our food and clothes, our emails, movies and video games. For those of us with children, this trend is particularly troublesome. Do we really want our children exposed to this much marketing hype?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children and adolescents view 40,000 ads per year on TV alone. Add the Internet, magazines and billboards, and the average young person is bombarded with over a million ad messages every year. Kids are an attractive market: children and adolescents spend around $180 billion per year and influence their parents to spend another $200 billion. What’s particularly troublesome is that children younger than eight do not understand the notion of “intent to sell” and frequently accept advertising claims at face value.

This month, go ahead and shop if you must: for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, birthdays, or just because you want to. Be an educated consumer, however, and teach your children to watch out for manipulation by marketers.

Explain to your children that commercials and ads are paid for by companies to make people want to buy their products. Naturally the ads will try to make the products look as appealing as possible. But just because an ad tells them that a product is the best thing ever made, or is something they have to have, doesn’t mean it’s true. Although ads can give people useful information, they are just a starting point. We should do our own research and be aware of the many ways in which ads try to manipulate us before believing everything they claim.

Explain that the people endorsing products in ads—whether they are celebrities or seem like ordinary people—are paid actors and don’t necessarily use the products. Promotions, raffles and giveaways are clever ways to get personal information from people (like names, addresses and telephone numbers) so that more advertising can be directed at them. Internet sites store personal information about users whenever they “like” something on a social media site or click on a link. That information is often used to try to sell them things later on.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has an interesting site for kids called “Don’t Buy It:” http://pbskids.org/dontbuyit/advertisingtricks/  Through a series of interactive games, kids can learn advertising tricks, become an “ad detective,” and even create their own ads. The process of creating an ad helps them think like an advertiser and be more able to spot advertising tricks in the future.

List all the ways you can think of that advertisers try to attract you. Some examples:

  • bright colors
  • flashing banners
  • music and sound effects
  • pictures of happy people using the product
  • celebrities using the product
  • product made to look bigger or better
  • repetition (same ads shown over and over)
  • shortages (real or planned, to cause a sense of urgency)

Make a game of trying to spot advertising messages as you go through your day. Television commercials, ads in magazines, and billboards on highways are easy to identify. But what about logos on clothes? Brand-name products in movies and on television shows? Logos and company names on athletes’ uniforms, race cars, and stadium walls? Those are ads, too.

As a parent, you can try to limit your children’s exposure to advertising. Limit their TV watching and encourage commercial-free stations when they do watch. Discourage logo-laden clothing, which makes your kids walking advertisements. Speak out at your local schools about the troubling trend of ads on bus radio, commercials on classroom current-events television stations, franchise food chains in cafeterias, ad-laden teaching modules provided by manufacturers, ads in bathroom stalls, and so on. Try to become an ad-savvy family!

Holiday Spending Without Breaking the Bank

While you are working to help minimize the marketing hype and outrageous requests for holiday spending from your children, consider taking a look at your household’s finances – what can you afford? How can you make the most of your financial situation? To learn more or access helpful materials, speak with a local financial professional or visit www.massmutual.com/family.

Sarah Tolson, Certified Financial Planner™ and Founder of Girls Just Gotta Have Funds, is passionate about helping women and families create customized wealth-building plans tailored to their goals and life circumstances. As a second generation financial planner, Sarah’s vision is to inspire women to make their dreams a reality! Sarah is offering the readers of Active Kids, a complimentary one-hour financial consultation and would like to extend an invitation to her monthly Wine, Women & Wealth workshop. Please call her at (925) 736-3024 or email her at stolson@financialguide.com for more information.