How Online Marketing Targets Children

In the past, children were exposed to advertisements everywhere: in school, on television, at the grocery store, in the daily newspaper, and beyond. All their favorite celebrities and fictional characters supported brands and products that they then felt compelled to buy. That hasn’t changed in our current age, but there is now a new frontier for advertising: digital media, including the Internet, video games, and various types of personal computers and mobile devices. And children are exposed to digital media just as frequently as – if not more than – other forms of media that include advertising.

Though there is nothing wrong with this at its face, sometimes, online marketing is getting smarter at targeting advertising towards specific (groups of) people, and children are no exception. This can make some forms of online advertising disturbingly privacy-invasive, or even downright dangerous.

There are many ways your children are advertised to online, some of which you may not even notice. In this article, we’ll outline some of the ways in which children are targeted by online marketing and how they work, so you can learn to recognize them. Then, we’ll give you some tips for how to help your children recognize them, too, so they can stay safe while browsing online.

6 frequent ways advertisements target children online

1. Social media endorsement from celebrities.

Children often feel very connected to their favorite celebrities, which is why celebrity-branded products for children sell so well. This is no different on social media, especially if your child is following the activities of their favorite celebrities – like singer Katy Perry, for example.

Katy Perry cover girl advertisement on social media

When celebrities post status updates, they often include mentions of particular brands. They may even outright offer support for a certain product – shoes, clothing, a toy, makeup, etc. This is one of the simplest ways children are targeted by online marketing, and it’s sometimes difficult for them to recognize. This is because they are often don’t believe that watching a video of their favorite celebrity is the same as watching a commercial.

2. Liking on Facebook, and targeted advertising.

Many people don’t realize that when they perform various actions on online social networks, such as giving a post on Facebook a “Like,” they’re setting themselves up to be targeted by specific advertisements in the future. This is because many social networks track what kinds of posts they’ve interacted with, especially those featuring products, promotional offers, or even contests. Then, in the future, the things they see on their news feeds will be customized to match those same interests.

Liking the post of a company on Facebook

It’s easy to just use the various functions of a social network without thinking. But it’s important to remember that, for every action you take, you’re likely creating data that the social network can use to tailor its content towards you. Posts and advertisements that appear on your news feed may seemingly be random, but in truth, many of them are “featured” to you based on your previous activity.

Fortunately, there are sometimes ways to get around this. For example, check out this article if you want to learn how to customize your Facebook news feed.

3. Email newsletters and text updates.

Children often sign up for updates by email or text message from websites they like to use. Though these updates will often be about their corresponding service (at least on the surface), they will also sometimes include links to products for sale or promotional events. These forms of advertising are hard to spot as well, because they simply appear as emails or text messages.

Text message updates

4. YouTube videos, and YouTube ads.

Videos account for a large amount of the current traffic on the Internet, and countless hours are spent by children watching videos on websites like Not only are there often advertisements all over YouTube, but most videos now require you to watch an ad before you actually view the main content. Some videos even have ads partway through them, depending on how long they are.

Ad before a YouTube video

If you think about the fact that each video your child watches contains one or more advertisements that are so easy to click on and follow to a site that’s selling something, the amount of advertising they view on YouTube (and sites like it) could be very large indeed. Also, because it’s almost impossible now to watch videos on YouTube without ads (at least without paying for an ad-free program), YouTube and other video-sharing websites are one of the main ways children are targeted.

It’s also incredibly easy to target advertisements on video-sharing sites, because the marketers select which videos they want their ads to appear on. Ads aimed at children will likely appear on videos that are most frequently watched by younger audiences, which makes it more probable that children who watch those videos will be interested in what’s being advertised and click on an ad to investigate.

5. Integrating familiar characters into unrelated products.

Also known as “cross-branding” has been a marketing technique for years, as it became obvious to many companies that children often want a product simply because it features some of their favorite characters from television, books, film, or other media. For example, your child may suddenly really want a box of a cereal they wouldn’t normally eat, simply because it features Yoda or Darth Vader from Star Wars on the box. This technique is no different online.

Star Wars cereal box

Animations and other online digital media can so easily represent familiar characters. However, these characters are sometimes used out of context, often simply to encourage your child to click on something. Your child’s familiarity with a beloved character, coupled with a longing to know more about what is going on with them, can cause something they may not have otherwise noticed to become irresistible to click on.

6. Interactive games supporting products or brands.

Using digital devices to play games online is often one of the earliest ways children are exposed to the Internet. Unfortunately, these games are far from exempt when it comes to online marketing and advertising. In fact, many games online are built around popular franchises and characters, simply because marketers know that a child will play them because of their familiarity with the subject matter.

SpongeBob SquarePants computer game

Though a game may be free to play, it could have product placements or force your child to watch advertisements in breaks between gameplay. And, of course, your child is often constantly exposed to a brand, character, or franchise throughout the entirety of their game play.

If you want to channel your child’s desire to play online games into a productive exercise, show them this website. It has great games that teach children about topic such as:

  • How to recognize bias in online media
  • Recognizing marketing techniques online
  • Understanding privacy policies
  • Cyber security risks
  • What information should always be kept private, and what can be shared online
  • Alcohol advertising marketed at youth

It is extremely important for children to understand how they are being targeted by advertisements online. It is equally important for them to recognize that not everything they see online is free, real, or safe, though marketing techniques can make it seem that way. That’s why we’ve got a list of ways to help your child recognize when they are seeing an advertisement online, and how to interact with them to make sure they develop safe Internet habits.

How to help your children recognize online advertisements

1. Teach them about advertising and online safety at a young age.

It’s never too early to start having a conversation about media literacy and online safety with your child. If you believe they are old enough to handle the Internet or digital devices, then they are old enough to understand that they need to make smart choices about what they look at and do online.

They need to know that there are dangers on the Internet, including ones that extend beyond advertisements just trying to sell them something. Indeed, there are online threats that could put their personal privacy and safety – as well as that of their family – at risk. Teach your children about the potential pitfalls of the Internet, especially those surrounding sharing personal information online.

2. Explain how brands work, and how companies make money with advertising.

If your child doesn’t know how brands work, or how they make money with advertisements, then it will be much more difficult for them to recognize when they are being advertised to. And it will be even more difficult still for them to realize when they are being specifically targeted by marketing campaigns.

Teach your child about how websites make money through advertisements and affiliate marketing. Explain that many websites are designed to encourage people to click on different things, many of which are advertisements that take them to where they can buy something. Also make sure your child understands how some websites, to this end, specifically direct their content at children to take advantage of their natural curiosity.

If your child understands how online marketing works and is designed, they will recognize advertisements targeting them while they’re browsing the Internet much more quickly.

3. Monitor their Internet usage, and keep the conversation open.

Two young children using a smart phone

Remember that it’s important to regularly monitor your child’s Internet usage. That goes beyond how much time you determine is appropriate for them to spend online, though. You should still take an interest in how your child spends their time online, and what they encounter in the process.

It’s also important to let your child know that they can talk to you about anything they see online. Make sure they understand that the discussion is open for questions about things that interest them on the Internet. And don’t forget to ask them questions about how they feel about what they see online.

4. Encourage critical thinking about what they see.

Asking questions and thinking about the things you see online is the best way to learn about how to recognize when a website is trying to sell you something. Teach your children to never connect with, speak to, or give out personal information to anyone they are unfamiliar with. Also, teach them never to spend their money online without fully thinking through what they are doing.

It’s also important that your child understands that things are not always what they seem, especially online. Often, things on the Internet that seem too good to be true are, in fact, just that. For example, teach them not to enter all online contests that they’re interested in simply because it seems easy to participate. Often, entering a contest will require giving out one or more pieces of personal information, such as a street address, phone number, email address, and so on. And more likely than not, the website hosting the contest will use that information to target you or your child with advertising in the future.

5. Remind them to always ask for permission before accepting anything.

Your child is still that – a child. This means that many websites, by law, require them to indicate they have parental permission to view the website, play a game, create an account, or make a purchase. Make sure you teach your child that it is not okay to simply “check the box” and accept the website’s terms of use. They must read the website’s policies to understand what they may experience there, as well as what they may or may not be allowed to do there (either by law or by the website’s rules). And be sure to teach your child that they should still ask for permission before doing anything online that may require parental consent.

Warning to ask permission

Keeping children safe online is one of our top priorities, and it is important that we all do our part to teach children at a young age about online safety and privacy. Check out the rest of to learn more about online safety, or give this article from MediaSmarts a read if you’re interested in learning more about how online marketing targets children.

Remember to always bring children into the conversation as soon as you give them access to technology and digital media. It’s never too early to start learning how to stay safe online!