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Sneaky Ways Advertisers Target Kids

More than ever before, advertising and entertainment are inextricably linked.

You might think you're hip to the tricks that advertisers use to reach kids online. You've seen the ads that play before online games. You know about the flashing banner ads, the contests, the sweepstakes, and even the sponsored Google links that match your search terms. But as technology advances -- and kids gravitate toward new programs and digital devices -- advertisers have found sneakier ways to capture kids' attention.

So how are your kids being targeted?

  • Social Media celebrity endorsements. Tweets from reality TV stars, musicians, and other celebs can earn them upwards of $10,000. That's right, the rich and famous are cashing in on their Twitter fans by tweeting about how much they love a certain product. And unlike sponsored Twitter ads, these celeb tweets are not labeled "Ad."
  • Text updates. For teens who can't live without news of Gossip Girl, no problem. Sign up for the show's mobile alerts and get the latest news from the show -- as well as ads from all the companies who've bought your kids' information when they signed up.
  • Magically Delicious videos. Did you see that cool video on YouTube? The one starring a leprechaun named Lucky? Lucky Charms has a series of webisodes starring its famous animated spokesperson. These animated videos are also featured on the Lucky Charms website, as is a massive interactive world that plugs Lucky Charms cereal at every opportunity.
  • Playing with Food. Like Lucky Charms, ads disguised as games are rampant on the web. -- a popular kids' website -- plants McDonald's products throughout its virtual world.
  • Be Careful What You Like. Facebook's viral nature plays right into teens' desire for social acceptance. Take Spotify, a social networking music site that publishes your listening activity on Facebook. It's easy advertising for Spotify.

What You Can Do

Advertisers know that the earlier a child learns about a brand, the more likely they will be to buy it later (or beg their parents to buy it). And children under 7 can't tell the difference between advertising and entertainment. Helping kids understand how advertising works can help protect them from being exploited. (Visit Admongo, the FTC's ad-education site, for more ways to help kids get ad-savvy.)

Also, talk to your kid about protecting his or her online privacy. Kids give advertisers lots of information just by downloading an app or clicking on a sweepstakes. Social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare are conjuring up ways to make money off the behavioral data they can collect on kids. While you can't protect your kid from preying advertisers entirely, you can help them limit their privacy vulnerabilities -- and cultivate a healthy sense of skepticism toward advertising.

Caroline Knorr
Caroline is Common Sense Media's former parenting editor. She has many years of editorial and creative marketing writing experience and has held senior-level positions at, Walmart stores, Cnet, and Bay Area Parent magazine. She specializes in translating complex information into bite-sized chunks to help families make informed choices about what their kids watch, play, read, and do.