TV Advertising and Children 
in Latin America

Don't you understand, I replied, that we begin by telling children stories, which taken as a whole, are fiction, though they contain some truth?  Such story telling begins at an earlier age than physical training; that is why I said we should start with the mind.  And the beginning, as you know, is always the most important part, when the character is being molded and easily takes an impression one may wish to stamp on it.  Then shall we simply allow our children to listen to any stories that anyone happens to make up, and so receive into their minds ideas often the very opposite of those we shall think they ought to have when they grow up?

The Republic, Plato

Most Latin American households have access to television.  This has meant that Latin American children today are spending a significant amount of their leisure time watching television.  Most television programs are free to viewers, so these programs are made possible only by advertising dollars.  In the field of children television, a number of multinational advertisers account for a significant share of the advertising dollars:

This leads to a serious social question of whether it is fair to advertise to children, who are said to be sometimes unable to distinguish between reality and fiction and between entertainment and advertising.  A supposed consequence of advertising is that children are being persuaded to demand things that they don't need and to adopt consumerist values, lifestyles and attitudes in their formative years.  Against this criticism is the argument that advertising is pervasive in our societies, on television and everywhere else, so this cannot be about banning advertising from one specific arena of social life at the price of having either no or very limited children-oriented television at all.  Rather, this should be about teaching children to better understand the nature and substance of all advertising.

It is not our intention here to debate the good and evil of advertising on television.  Rather, we are interested in whether or not children like to watch the ads on television.  In the Pan Latin American Kids Study, a sample of children between the ages of 7 and 11 years old in 18 Latin American countries were presented with this statement, "I love to watch ads on television."  If children did not like to watch ads, then the insidious effects of advertising may no longer be a point of debate.

As it turned out, 54% of the children agreed with the statement, 28% disagreed with the statement and 18% neither agreed nor disagreed.  In the following table, we show the geodemographic breakdown of the answers.

Geodemographic Characteristic

% Agree with "I love to watch ads on television"
Geographic Region
     Balance of Central America
     Balance of South America


     7-9 years
     10-11 years


(Source:  Pan-Latin American Kids Study)

One of the effects of advertising is the transmission of beliefs about the quality and worth of products and brands.  The children in the Pan Latin American Kids Study were also shown the statement, "North American products are better" and 41% agreed with it.  The results are cross-tabulated against their attitudes towards television advertising in the following table.  While it is true that those love to watch ads on television also believe that North American products are better, this does not constitute any conclusive proof about the effects of television advertising since they could have been influenced by concomitant sources (such as peers, parents and other media).  For advertisers, the attribute of 'north american'-ness is a double-edged sword --- on one hand, one can attempt to leverage the image of the most advanced consumerist nation in the world; on the other hand, one can run afoul of nationalistic anti-gringo sentiments.

  % agree with the statement "North American products are better"
Agree with "I love to watch ads on tv" 53%
Neither agree nor disagree with "I love to watch ads on tv" 30%
Disagree with "I love to watch ads on tv" 26%
     TOTAL 41%

(Source:  Pan-Latin American Kids Study)

In a consumerist society, the most valued behavior is spending.  Spend, spend, spend and then spend some more!  In this regard, advertising has been criticized as being an instrument that artificially stimulating the demand for unnecessary things.  When the children in the Pan Latin American Kids Study were asked how they spend their allowance money, 77% said "Candy/snacks", 13% said "Toys/games" while only 2% said that they saved their money.  In the following table, we show these answers cross-tabulated by their attitudes towards television advertising.  Again, we remind the reader that this does not constitute a proof of causality.

  % spend money on candy/snacks % spend money on toys/games
Agree with "I love to watch ads on tv" 80% 16%
Neither agree nor disagree with "I love to watch ads on tv" 78% 16%
Disagree with "I love to watch ads on tv" 71% 6%
     TOTAL 77% 13%

In the debate about the effects of advertising on children, we sometimes forget that advertising is not an invincible tool.  In the annals of marketing, there have been many, many more failed products than successful ones.  Having a massive advertising budget is helpful, but that does not automatically guarantee a hit, just that it can be a spectacular failure. 

(posted by Roland Soong on 10/19/00)

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