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Caught in the Web: Online Advertising Targets Kids

Online advertising is the fastest growing marketing medium for reaching kids at school and at home. Today, even elementary school students need to be able to analyze and evaluate advertising without adult assistance. Included: Eighteen activities for building media literacy -- for students in elementary through high school!

According to the Center for Media Education (CME), online marketing to kids involves "advertising practices that are potentially very harmful to children." Those practices include:

  • Eliciting personal information, compiling profiles, and designing advertising directed toward individual children.
  • Creating interactive environments that engage children's complete attention for substantial periods of time.
  • Integrating advertising with content in such a way that children cannot easily tell the difference.

The ability of online advertising to identify, analyze, and sell to individual children while those children are involved in engaging interactive activities "gives advertisers unprecedented power over children," said the CME report.

Furthermore, the report adds, "by capturing their attention online, marketers are able to circumvent their normal guardians. Rather than being mediated by parents and teachers, advertising reaches children directly, enabling companies to establish individual relationships with vulnerable young computer users."

Clearly, it's vital that parents and teachers help kids -- even those in elementary school -- learn to analyze and evaluate advertising without adult assistance.


The 18 activities below can help you get students of any age started on the road to becoming savvy online consumers.


Show students a cereal box covered with brown paper. The only label should be the word Cereal. Ask: Would you want to buy or eat the cereal in this box? Why or why not? Then tell students they are in charge of creating a box for a new kind of cereal. Distribute drawing paper and crayons or markers, and ask each student to create a cereal box that will make people want to buy the cereal. Encourage students to include advertising slogans, games, or prizes in the box. Invite students to share their creations with their classmates.

Ask each student to cut from a magazine or newspaper an advertisement for a product he or she has never used but would like to buy. Have students paste their pictures on picture-story paper and make a list of the reasons they want that product. Invite students to read their lists to the class. Ask: How do you know the information in the ad is true? Determine whether anyone else in the class has used any of the products. If so, ask: Was everything in the ad true? Why or why not? Why might ads not always tell the truth? How can you find out whether ads are true before you buy a product?

Invite students to visit the Pleasant Company's American Girls Collection or Mattel's and explore the sites. Ask: Do you think this site was created so kids could have fun, so kids could learn, or so kids would buy something? Why do you think that? After discussing the students' answers, point out the language at each site that indicates the site contains product information and advertising materials. Ask: What do you think this site is selling?

Encourage students to explore Then have them put on a skit showing kids trying to persuade their parents to buy one of the products at the site -- and the parents' responses.

Invite students to visit Scholastic for Kids and ask them to find and count the ads. Point out any ads they didn't find and ask: What clues do you see that might help you know this is an ad? Write the clues on posterboard and invite students to illustrate it. Display your poster in the classroom or corridor.

As a follow-up to the previous activity, encourage students to explore KidsCom and find the ads. Ask: How did you find the ads? What clues on the poster did you use? What other clues did you have? Did the Ad Bug make it easier to find the ads? Why or why not? Do you think every kids' site should have an ad bug? Why or why not?


Invite students to explore sites at Breakthrough to Kids and Teens and nominate ads they think deserve such awards as Most Fun, Most Educational, Least Ad-like, Best Art, Best Animation, Best Game, and so on. Give students time to investigate all the nominees and then vote for the winner in each category.

Provide students with a list of sites, such as Nintendo, The Boston Red Sox, The New York Times Learning Network, UConn Huskies and Kellogg's. Have students explore each site and determine whether it's an educational, commercial, or recreational site, or a combination of two or more types. Ask them to give reasons for their decisions.

Choose a product that's advertised in several different media, such as television, magazines, and online, and have students explore an example of each type of ad. Ask each student to rate the effectiveness of each ad on a scale of 1 to 4. Then have students tally the total score for each ad and graph the results. Encourage students to discuss their findings.

Invite students to explore sites at Breakthrough to Kids & Teens. Have them find and document any contests, games, surveys, and registration requirements that ask kids to submit personal information. Ask: Why might companies want personal information from kids? What might they do with that information? When should you give that information? Discuss their answers and correct any wrong responses. Make sure students understand they should never give personal information unless a parent or guardian is present.


Invite students to research print and online resources to determine why companies might want to advertise to kids online. Encourage them to locate information such as the number of students younger than 18 who are online, the number of dollars spent each year on online advertising, the percentage of total profits resulting from that advertising, and so on.

Ask students to explore Kid Targeted Ads from the Center for a New American Dream and encourage them to vote for "the kid-targeted ad that most blatantly and unapologetically promotes excessive, irresponsible, and unsustainable consumption." Then encourage them to surf the Web to find their own "bad ad" nominees. Vote for the winner, and create a chart tabulating the results.

Invite students to complete the Evaluating Web Pages WebQuest.

Have students read Advertising Age's History of TV Advertising. Then ask them to research print and online materials to create a similar history of online advertising. Encourage students to pay particular attention to rules and regulations about online advertising.

As a follow-up to the previous activity, encourage students to stage a debate about one or more of the laws or proposed laws.



The following sites provide additional media literacy lesson plans for a variety of age groups.

Daily Lesson Plan
The New York Times Learning Network contains a number of technology-related lesson plans for students in grades 6 through 12.

Media and Internet Education Resources for Teachers
The Media Awareness Network includes activities and lesson plans for kids ages 7-13.

Misinformation on the Internet
This site provides a collection of links and a lesson on online misinformation for high school students.

Evaluating Information Found on the World Wide Web
This Web site includes lesson planning resources.


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Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
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Links last updated 10/19/2011