Thought Leadership

Why are we still advertising to children - at all?

Advertising to children raises uncomfortable yet unavoidable questions for what the creative industry needs to do better.

Dulcie Cowling

Head of Creative Hell Yeah!


In the world we advertising grown-ups inhabit, we consume the very best of creativity, delivered with purpose and intent. Sometimes it’s mindful, or purposeful, or funny, or moving. 

But advertising aimed at kids - and particularly toys - isn’t. It’s loud, it’s direct, and it does everything we wish advertising didn’t. It targets those with no money and little agency to buy something that they don’t need. 

I can’t be the only person to have realised that most of my kids' toys will long outlast their childhood - and as landfill, not cherished hand me downs.

The furore around the ban on HFSS ads for kids obscured a truth that many of us would like to forget. In the arguments around whether it would make a difference, we forgot that advertising works - or we wouldn’t use it. Kids might be seeing fewer TV ads today, but YouTube and other platforms are rife with ads - with even less parental filtering for many.

Christmas ads will, unbelievably, be out again in a few weeks, so the onslaught of plastic must-haves is about to get worse. However, in a few weeks too, will be COP26, where the governments of the world will come together to take a good hard look at the mess we’re in, and how we got there. 

If they can’t yet be trusted with money, why should they be bombarded with messages about things that promise to make their lives better?

Dulcie Cowling, head of creative, Hell Yeah!

I realise I sound like one of the Silicon Valley tech execs who send their kids to ‘analogue schools’ or, drug dealers who refuse to touch Class A’s - it’s precisely because I understand the potency of advertising that I don’t think kids should be directly targeted by it. If they can’t yet be trusted with money, why should they be bombarded with messages about things that promise to make their lives better?

My kids mainly watch shows on catchup, so hadn’t been exposed to many commercial breaks. This changed, however, when we visited my parents and I dutifully dragged my bum out of bed at 5.30am to watch some live kids’ TV with them. My children were mesmerised with all of the shiny toys they saw on screen, and I was bombarded with requests for us to buy them almost every single one. 

Being bombarded from a young age with what we don’t have makes us incapable of being thankful for all the things we do have

Dulcie Cowling, head of creative, Hell Yeah!

Something struck me about this - not when it was happening, but later on that night at bedtime. My eldest boy lost an eyelash, and I let him blow it away, saying, as I always do “make a wish!” Enquiring about his wish (as I always do!) he told me it was that he wished we could be rich (something he’s never said before!). When I asked why, he nonchalantly said “so that we can buy all of those toys we saw on the TV”. Being bombarded from a young age with what we don’t have makes us incapable of being thankful for all the things we do have. 

Aside from Lego and a few cult brands, advertising to kids is rarely ever mentioned in trade press. Why is that? We know. Advertising to kids is the last stand of everything we want to ignore about this profession. Selling things to people who can’t really make a rational decision and who don’t have financial autonomy is something we’d try very hard not to do for any other group. But not kids. 

I know some will see this as an extreme position. Brands have products, they should be able to sell them. I absolutely agree with this. But it’s right to have a discussion about whether this is the right way to do it. Ultimately, until they have enough money, parents are the decision-makers. And even then, sometimes parents can veto what is bought.

We routinely consider the products that we allow to be advertised, either as a country, as businesses, or as individuals. The precedent is there for smoking, for processed foods. A lot of people have red lines regarding the accounts they would personally work on - such as tobacco. I’m making the case that advertising to people with little will to resist something that might not be good for them or the planet is as applicable to kids as it is to anything else. 

Advertising finances kids' content and TV shows - and that’s a harder challenge. But there are other products that can be advertised, and regulations put in place to protect how kids are targeted, and the products that can be sold. Why not advertise toys directly to adults, who will ultimately be buying them?

There will be a crossover point - when children will have some pocket money that they can choose to spend. But there should also perhaps be regulations on the lifecycle of the toys that are advertised to children at any age. The current environmental focus is on single use plastic, but there will be a lot of ‘multiple-use-but-still-plastic’ toys floating in the rising seas in a few hundred years too. 

I know no one is perfect - there are plastic toys in my house, just like there are for pretty much every family with young kids. I don’t think they’ll disappear just because they aren’t advertised. But the quantity, availability and advertising of them to kids who can’t make a proper judgement just yet - just like with ultra processed food - raises uncomfortable questions about what our industry needs to do better.

There isn’t an easy answer to what happens here. I’d of course love there to be some broad agreement, but I can see (especially given how much debate the HFSS ban created) that this comes with its own challenge. But the least we can do is to think about this issue and work out where we stand on it. 

Key takeaways: 

The ethics of advertising to children is complicated, both morally and environmentally

Advertising needs to consider its role in this in more detail 

In the absence of government intervention, agencies should discuss their red lines around this issue, and what they consider acceptable


Guest Author

Dulcie Cowling

Head of Creative Hell Yeah!


Dulcie began her career working as a creative at design and branding agencies. Her love of comedy led her to begin directing, and soon she was writing and directing comedy sketches and working as a commercials director. In 2019 she co-founded creative agency Hell Yeah!, which is focused on working with brands who have a positive impact on the world. Clients include Farmdrop, Cuvva and OLIO. Prior to Hell Yeah!, she founded production company Studio Yes with Sam Ojari and Adam Morley, which works alongside Hell Yeah! Studio Yes creates online content and TV commercials for a range of clients, as well as entertainment for the BBC. Dulcie’s accolades include a D&AD yellow pencil, a Cannes Lion Gold, a Clio (bronze), two Kinsale Sharks and a D&AD creative bursary among others. When she’s not working on commercial work, she is one of the co-creators of viral YouTube channel Yes It’s Funny, writing and directing sketches and viral videos with millions of organic views.

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Children Advertising