Empowering children to cope with embedded advertising

The December 2016 edition of the BIK bulletin focuses on online adverting and the commercialisation of childhood. Here, we hear from Ini Vanwesenbeeck, Verolien Cauberghe and Liselot Hudders from Ghent University on the Belgian AdLit research project which seeks to identify how best to empower children to cope with embedded advertising online.

Nowadays, many young children get paid to actively promote brands to their peers in vlog messages posted on YouTube. This new way of advertising is often much more persuasive as it is difficult to recognise as advertising and understand its persuasive intent. Today, many other hybrid advertising formats are used to target children, such as advergames, in-game advertising, advertiser-funded programs or sponsored content. These formats are often interactive, personalised and engaging, and integrate commercial content within other media-content, blurring the boundaries between entertainment and advertising.

The Belgian AdLit research project (which stands for ‘advertising literacy') aims to investigate how minors (between 6 and 18 years) can be empowered to cope with this hybrid forms of advertising. Advertising literacy refers to the knowledge and skills needed by children to deal with advertising. This does not only include advertising recognition and understanding of commercial intentions and tactics used, but also awareness of the emotions incited by advertising and critical reflection on persuasive strategies that are used. It takes an interdisciplinary approach, combining insights from communication, marketing, law and pedagogy, to develop tools to enhance children's advertising literacy towards hybrid advertising.

In the past two years, AdLit conducted research among children, youngsters, their parents, advertising professionals, and the educational sector and performed a thorough analysis of the legal and self-regulatory framework to be able to grasp the problems related to hybrid advertising targeting minors. Based on the results of these studies, AdLit develops tools to empower children and raise awareness on the importance of advertising literacy.

Qualitative and quantitative research among 1,343 Flemish children aged between 7 and 12 years shows that children's advertising literacy for hybrid advertising is lower compared to traditional advertising. TV advertising also led to the highest brand recognition. Advergames appear to be the most difficult advertising format for children in terms of recognition and understanding. In addition, advergames lead to a higher intention to pester, compared to the other advertising formats. Advergames influence children subconsciously: the positive feelings incited by the advergame are automatically transferred to the brand. In other words, due to the fun nature of advergames, children are not motivated to reflect critically on the game's intentions. Therefore, children's advertising literacy does not affect children's evaluation of the brand. Important to note is that qualitative research within the AdLit project also shows that children are under the impression that advertising does not influence them if they did not see the brand. Thus, when product placement is not noticed, children think it has no influence on them. This is however not the case: academic research shows that advertising effects on brand attitudes does not require a conscious brand recognition.

With regard to the moral advertising literacy (judgements of the advertising fairness: ‘Do I find this advertising fair?') and affective advertising literacy (i.e. an affective evaluation of the advertising format: ‘Do I like this type of advertising?'), children scored low on all investigated formats (online sponsored banners, product placement, advergames and TV advertising). This suggests that children often label advertising as fair, and are not critical towards these formats. However, children who were critical towards advertising, scored lower on brand attitude, when recognising advertising. Advertising literacy has a negative impact on advertising effectiveness, but only for critical children.

Teenagers (12-18 years) have received less scholarly attention with regard to (hybrid) advertising because they are considered less vulnerable to advertising effects. A survey and two experimental studies among 3,304 teenagers showed that youngsters believe that they are capable of recognising and understanding advertising. However, experimental research shows that this is not always the case. AdLit studies have focused on advertising within social network site (SNS) as these sites are popular among teenagers. The results revealed that teenagers are more skeptical towards retargeted ads (i.e. ads that use browsing history) compared to general ads. Further, adolescents were not always aware of commercial intent of social advertising, while chatting online with their friends.

Vulnerable audiences
Research on advertising literacy and minors rarely takes into account the role of socio-economic status (SES) of the family context. However, given the impact of SES on general media use, it is likely that SES also impacts children's level of advertising literacy. A qualitative study among 59 respondents (aged 11-13) showed that disadvantaged pre-adolescents were aware of advertising presented via more traditional channels, but did not discuss new or hybrid advertising formats when not prompted to it.

Parental mediation to increase children's advertising literacy
Within the AdLit project, 736 Flemish parents of children participated in research on parental advertising literacy and advertising mediation styles. The results showed that parents are knowledgeable about new advertising formats. Advergames are an exception: parents are not sufficiently aware of this format. Further, parents prefer to avoid advertising and rarely discuss the existence of embedded advertising with their children. Parents also believe that their children are capable of understanding advertising formats around the age of 12. AdLit research stresses the importance of parental mediation. By developing specific guidelines, parents might be stimulated to discuss advertising strategies more in depth, focusing on the different dimensions of advertising literacy (cognitive, affective and moral). In addition, they need to be triggered to talk about the new, integrated advertising formats.

Advertising professionals
Advertising professionals are also important with regard to youngers' advertising literacy, as this group decides how to target youngsters. Within the AdLit project, a survey and a qualitative study among 100 advertising professionals was conducted. The results show that advertising professionals are aware of problems with regard to minors and advertising, but only for children below 12 years old. Compared to adults, children are less skilled to judge the fairness of advertising (i.e. moral advertising literacy). Therefore, AdLit wants to make a plea for ‘ethical and transparent advertising' instead of covert marketing techniques. Advertising professionals do not act as socialisation agents and are not a part of the children's immediate environment. Nevertheless, they are responsible for which advertising information reaches the children and how this information is distributed. If advertisers use advertising formats that are more clearly understandable for children, then children will be more capable to make informed consumers decisions.

Educational sector
Schools can help children and teenagers to cope with new advertising formats. A curriculum analysis took place investigating whether and how advertising literacy is integrated into the curriculum in primary and secondary education. References to advertising is most often integrated into language curriculum standards. Further, embedded online advertising is not yet included into the curriculum, as the focus is mostly on more traditional advertising formats (such as TV advertising). To enhance the role of education in children's advertising literacy, educational packages are developed within the AdLit project.

Legal and self-regulatory framework
Policy makers and regulatory bodies have issued different sets of rules with regard to commercial communication aimed at minors. However, this does not automatically lead to a high level of protection and empowerment of minors. The mapping of the legal framework showed that there is both legislation and self- and co- regulation at different levels (international, European, national, regional, etc.) related to embedded and hybrid advertising targeting minors. For advertising professionals, it is difficult to see the forest for the trees. It is, therefore, important to give them a clear overview of the legal and self-regulatory framework. AdLit already developed a short one-pager with an overview of the most important laws in this context. However, there is a need for a legal vademecum that bundles all the guidelines. Further, awareness is needed among citizens with regard to the available complaint mechanisms to report unmoral advertising practices towards children. In addition, a better coordination between existing regulatory bodies, i.e. the Jury for Ethical Practices in Advertising, the Flemish Media Regulator and even the Privacy Commission (for instance in relation to behavioral advertising) is needed. Through improved dialogue and joint consultations, more concrete guidelines and common recommendations on the implementation of the often general or abstract principles of the regulatory framework and their application to new advertising formats could be developed.

Tools to improve youngsters' advertising literacy
To empower children, teenagers and vulnerable audiences, both the immediate surroundings (parents and children) and non-immediate surroundings (policy makers and advertising professionals) should take action to increase minor's advertising literacy towards new media formats. The following two years (2017-2018), AdLit will work on initiatives involving not only children, teenagers and vulnerable minors, but also parents, advertising professionals, educational professionals, policy makers and all other stakeholders able to empower minor's advertising literacy.

In October 2016, AdLit launched a series of mini-games to increase both children's and parental advertising literacy (http://reclamewijs.ugent.be). These games aim to improve children's and parent's knowledge on embedded advertising and strategies used in these new advertising formats. Further, AdLit will, among others, work on the development of an understandable disclosure cue (i.e. a label that point out the commercial nature of advertising), legal vademecums directed at parents, teenagers and advertising professionals, and educational packages.

More information on the AdLit project can be downloaded from the project website at www.adlit.be/english.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Better Internet for Kids portal, European Schoolnet, the European Commission or any related organisations or parties.

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