Journal Issue: Children and Electronic Media Volume 18 Number 1 Spring 2008
Content Analyses of Advertising and Marketing Practices in Children's Media
Using content analysis, researchers examine large samples of television programs and online websites and games, focusing on the nature of the products advertised, the production techniques used, and, in the case of television advertisements, the length of the commercials.
Content analyses of children's television programs aired by major broadcasters have for years revealed a heavy reliance on certain key products: sugar-coated cereals, fast-food restaurants, candy, soft drinks, and toys, and even alcohol and tobacco.74 As cable became more prevalent in U.S. households, researchers compared the kinds of products being advertised on major national broadcasts, independent stations, and cable channels. They found that 75 percent of all advertisements they examined featured sugar-coated cereals, sugared drinks and snacks, and fast foods.75 Sugar -coated cereals, snacks, and drinks dominated advertisements on the major broadcasters; toys, those on the independent stations. The products advertised to children on cable networks varied more widely than those on the other two media and included telephone services for children to call.
Content analyses of online marketing practices reveal similar patterns. One study of children's online advergames found that sugar-coated cereals dominated those sites and that advertisers used animation to provide a perceptually interesting and enjoyable online gaming experience.76 A study of the nutritional value of products on food websites, such as Lay's Potato Chips, found the food products high in calories and low in nutritional value.77 In an analysis of ten popular children's websites, Lisa Alvy and Sandra Calvert found that 70 percent of the sites marketed food and that the food, including candy, sweetened breakfast cereals, snacks, and fast food, was high in calories and low in nutritional value. The sites used perceptually grabbing techniques, including animation, bold and colorful text, and branded characters.78
Tobacco advertisements were once prevalent on radio and television. Because of the documented health hazards of smoking, the Federal Communications Commission invoked the Fairness Doctrine in 1967, requiring one public service announcement to be run for every three tobacco ads; in 1970, a law banned tobacco advertising from radio and television. Even so, characters in television and films continue to smoke.79 Although tobacco can no longer be advertised on television, one study found that the less strictly regulated online world features numerous tobacco and cigar sites and depicts smoking as a hip activity. Advertisers use virtual bartenders on alcohol-related sites to create one-on-one relationships with youth. The sites use games, humor, and hip language to attract children and youth.80
Length of Commercials
The amount of time allocated to advertisements in children's programs is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).81 The implementation of the Children's Television Act (CTA) by the FCC now limits advertisements on children's commercial television stations to 10.5 minutes an hour on weekends and 12 minutes an hour on weekdays, though these limits are frequently violated. For instance, one in four of the 900 U.S. commercial television stations showed more commercial material than allowed by the CTA from 1992 through 1994; in 2004, the FCC levied a $1 million fine against Viacom and a $500,000 fine against Disney for showing more commercial material than allowed by the CTA.82
More than three decades ago, F. Earle Barcus examined the share of airtime devoted to commercials on two samples of children's programs, one collected in 1971 and the other in 1975. In the 1971 sample, about 20 to 25 percent of the time in children's Saturday morning cartoons was allocated to advertising. By 1975, political pressure on commercial broadcasters from advocacy groups such as Action for Children's Television led the National Association of Broadcasters to reduce the share of commercial time on children's television programs to 15 percent. But to keep the same number of advertisements, the airtime of individual commercials was reduced from sixty to thirty seconds, with the result that more commercials could be screened in less time.83 Similarly, a study by John Condry examined advertisements on children's television programs sampled in 1983, 1985, and 1987. Although the overall time allocated to advertisements remained the same, the number of ads increased because the airtime of commercials had fallen further to fifteen seconds.84 One study found that the major national broadcasters showed the most commercials and that cable channels presented the fewest, in part reflecting the fact that cable revenues include paid subscriptions as well as advertisements.85
Products marketed online are subject to no time limits. Indeed, some of the online children's websites are built around specific products, such as the silly rabbit from Trix cereal, which means that 100 percent of the time children play on these sites can be devoted to advertising. The advergames on these sites encourage children to play with products in a fun, enjoyable context.86 Such marketing practices are not allowed on television.87
In summary, content analyses of both television and websites reveal a heavy marketing focus on food products that are high in calories and low in nutritional value. Marketers use perceptually salient production techniques to attract attention and interest. Branded characters designed to promote specific products populate both television and online sites. Considerable time is allocated to advertising and marketing in children's television programming and now on children's websites, which are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission though fewer regulations exist for marketing on the Internet. Products that are banned from television advertisements, such as smoking tobacco, have migrated to their new online home.