08/28/2013 08:26 am ET Updated Oct 28, 2013

Back to School in an Ad-Centric World


Here in New England acorns are starting to fall, the nights are a little cooler, the trees are beginning to show their first tinges of color. But the back to school ads have been on the air for months prior to the first yellow school busses making their initial runs. Some ads, in fact, began running even before the 2012-13 school year had ended.

My own children groaned when they first started seeing ads from Target and Office Depot. "Really? Seriously? It's only July!" But in fact, this retail calendar-shifting happens all the time. There's Halloween candy in supermarkets in August, holiday season ads go on the air well before Thanksgiving and you start seeing promos for candy and flowers for Valentine's Day before you've even turned the calendar to the year in which the valentine will be sent.

In an article in the New York Times, Stuart Elliott cited the "tenuous state of the economy" as well as a "fashion element" for back-to-school shopping as the major reasons for back to school ads hitting the airwaves and the internet ever earlier. An article in Advertising Age pointed out that back to school/college shopping accounts for about $84 billion in sales, putting it just behind the winter holiday season in terms of total profits garnered in a single period. But what does all this increased promotion and front-loading of ads mean for the children who are exposed to it?

We know from market analyses and academic studies, alike, that virtually all American children are exposed to an astonishing amount of advertising on a daily basis. Estimates range from a couple of hundred to several thousand ads that children see in one form or another each week, depending on how such calculations are made. And it's not even clear that some of the insidious forms of marketing such as branded names on a sweatshirt or a pair of jeans, or product placement in TV shows or music videos are accurately included in such estimates. But everyone -- marketers, academics and advocacy groups like Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood do agree on one thing: the amount of advertising kids see today is at an all-time high, and only increasing.

Lots of research has focused on what some of the effects of growing up in this highly ad-centric world might be. We know that preschoolers are less able to make a distinction between ads and programming content on television than kindergarteners are. The older children get, the more they are aware of and able to differentiate and identify ads in all of their various forms. We know that very young children tend to view ads as informational rather persuasive content. And in recent research, Dale Kunkel (2010) and O.B. Carter and colleagues (2011) have argued and shown empirically that by age 8, most children seem to understand that ads not only use persuasive techniques, but have an intent to sell them things. This is a more sophisticated understanding of ads, one which suggests kids have started to develop a skepticism about what advertising is all about.

We also know from the research that advertising can build brand loyalty early, that it can enhance a desire for products and that certain types of advertising techniques tend to be more effective than others with child audiences. Some researchers have tried to look at the social effects of advertising -- the extent to which it might contribute to parent/child conflict, develop a sense of materialism, further gender or ethnic stereotypes or enhance a sense of class division.

But some of the most interesting -- and most irksome -- questions about children and advertising are the ones that are all but impossible to research. For example, when back to school ads start making their appearance in May or June, does this compress or challenge a young child's sense of time? When product lines are linked to icons of popular culture (music, teen celebrities, sports stars) and begin pounding the airwaves and cyber-world well ahead of the start of school or a holiday, does this enhance or diminish the meaning of event in children's minds? And when you can buy your back to school clothes in May or get your Halloween candy in August or purchase your holiday gifts around Halloween, does advertising start to meld markers of time in children's minds?

When I asked my 13-year-old what he thought about seeing back-to-school ads when it was still the middle of summer vacation he responded derisively, "I just tune them out. I don't want anything making me think that summer's over before it really is!"