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Why Toddlers Love Commercials, According to Science

No, your baby isn't a budding ad executive. Their little brains are just that easy to market to.

Toddlers love commercials for diapers, toys, and snacks more than even TV shows produced for children, research suggests. And it’s not because your baby is the next Don Draper, according to David Hill, program director of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media. It’s because commercials are exactly what a toddler looks for in entertainment. 

“An ad is also a short form of entertainment and two-year-olds don’t have tremendous attention spans,” Hill told Fatherly. “But if you have 30 seconds of flashing lights and noise and small children and colorful objects, that’s designed to appeal to them right where they are developmentally.”

Companies now spend an estimated $17 billion a year marketing to children, compared to only $100 million spent in 1983. Kids ages 2 to 11 see more than 25,000 advertisements per year on TV. However, studies show that young children can’t tell the difference between commercials targeted towards them and other programming. Likewise, kids cannot even begin to recognize the persuasive intent of advertising until age 8, research shows.

All of that is great news for ad agencies, because kids tend to nag their parents to purchase items they’ve seen in commercials. But the ethics of advertising to an audience that is developmentally incapable of separating product pushing from entertainment is questionable, Hill says. He is currently collaborating with colleagues at the AAP to draft a new policy statement specifically related to commercials and advertisements for products that target children. The report is still about a year away so, in the mean time, Hill recommends parents co-view all media with young children. “As parents, indulging our kids in watching what entertains them is kind of fun,” he says. “We want to make them happy, but we also have to serve as curators for their digital lives.”

But not everyone agrees that advertisements are bad for kids. Denise Blasevick, founder of the S3 Ad Agency, argues that commercials are not harmful and can help kids use their developing imaginations. “Imagination requires participation in creation versus watching someone else’s creativity, like a show someone else created,” Blasevick told Fatherly. “When a toddler sees a commercial for a toy they want or have, for food they eat, for sunblock their parents put on them, there is a direct correlation to real life. They can imagine themselves in the scenarios they are seeing.”

The issue is that when they see themselves in these scenarios and become fans of the products, parents often respond to these requests and create a consumerism feedback loop, Hill warns. This can be hard to correct by their eighth birthday when they can start to understand that the babies dancing in the diaper commercials are actually tiny actors. Restrictions on advertisers aside, parents can avoid this by resisting the urge to purchase products just because the commercial appealed to your kid.

“You do not have to get them that toy, any more than you have to let them stay up until midnight or drink juice all day long,” Hill says. “They may enjoy riding without a car seat, but that’s not ok either.”