Ethics of Marketing to Children

child taking item off store shelf

One of the hottest issues in the world of marketing and business is how marketing to children should be treated. Marketing to children hasn’t been an issue that many have taken aim at in a while, but as we become more aware of the effects of marketing and some of the consequences on the health and financial well-being of those who grow up exposed to constant marketing, it becomes necessary to examine this issue a little more closely. 

I find this issue particularly interesting, as I loved TV commercials for toys and fast food toys and all the kinds of things like that as a kid and I still do today.

There are dozens of examples of companies marketing their products to children both in ways that are subtle as well as ways that are very obvious and targeted. This gives us a large sample size to pull from and try to determine where is the line when it comes to marketing to children. 

Examples of Marketing to Children

McDonald’s Marketing to Children – Canada

In Canada, a suit was filed against McDonald’s for what the plaintiff called illegal marketing to children. The main offence was alleged to be that McDonald’s was marketing to children under the age of 13, which is illegal in Canada except under certain circumstances. This case was brought in in 2018 and claimed that the way that McDonald’s markets to children are malicious. 

The marketing tactics that McDonald’s uses to lure in children are pretty simple. They use the promise of a toy with every Happy Meal to appeal to children. The parents that were involved in the lawsuit claim that this in turn pressures the parents to bring their children to McDonald’s. This direct type of marketing to children under the age of 13 does appear to be in violation of Canada’s law.

While the outcome of the case is not yet known, the class action suit that was brought against McDonald’s was approved to proceed by a Canadian court, so it definitely has legal ground to stand on. 

YouTube Marketing to Children – Brazil

One of the most popular ways that companies market to children is visually through online videos. With YouTube rising each day in popularity among children, it’s clear that the YouTube video has become one of the most effective and engaging ways to advertise to an audience. However, there have been some problems stemming from the fact that YouTube is becoming increasingly popular for children, especially on their iPads. 

This year, a lawsuit was filed against Google, the owner of YouTube for illegally marketing to children. This took place in Brazil, where it is illegal to market to children under the age of 12. The offender seemed to be “unboxing” videos, which generally show other children opening up new toys and playing with them, prompting children to pressure their parents into buying these toys. 

While these videos often weren’t being created directly by the companies that were featured in them, there were many instances of the video creators being paid commissions from the sales of the products that were referred by them. 

The status of the suit has yet to be determined, but there are thousands of legal professionals watching it because it could set precedent for many others to follow. These videos are some of the most popular on all of YouTube, meaning huge amounts of money for those with a lot of subscribers.

These kinds of cases will likely be seen frequently in the coming years as more potential instances of marketing to children under a certain age come to light. 

Juul Marketing to Children – United States of America

For a more contentious and much more widespread case of marketing to minors, you need only look to Juul. Juul is a mega popular e-cigarette brand that is rising in popularity exponentially. While Juul pods have been marketed as solutions for smokers who want to quit in recent months, their first ad campaigns painted a very different picture.

Their early advertising campaigns showed that Juul was clearly targeting a youthful customer base and putting out ads that they believed would be appealing to a younger audience. The argument here, of course, is how young they wanted to go. Targeting a younger audience isn’t a problem, as long as they are of legal age for you to do so. There is some question as to whether Juul violated laws that are designed to help protect minors from this kind of product and advertising campaign. 

Unfortunately for them, Juul’s problems definitely don’t stop there. Those who are bringing this suit against Juul also alleged that they are making false claims about the safety of the products, when in fact Juul’s contain a high amount of nicotine, which is very addictive and part of the problem with traditional cigarettes. This is going to be a very interesting battle to see play out, as Juul has taken over pop culture recently. 

NFL Marketing to Children – United States of America

One of the biggest companies to ever be hit with criticism over its advertising practices is the National Football League. As one of the biggest companies in the US, the NFL is extremely powerful. However, it hasn’t been immune to tough times. The NFL has seen a drop in viewership over the past couple of seasons and as a result they’ve seen it fit to ramp up their advertising efforts. 

A lot of their focus in their advertising campaigns has been to children and youth. The philosophy here seems to be that if they can get children involved at a young age, they will be more likely to consume the NFL in their adulthood. Unfortunately, this means that they are often advertising to young children, which has many people not very happy. 

Though the NFL has been able to veil their efforts to market to children by disguising them as public health initiatives (Play60), the public has taken issue with the fact that the NFL is exploiting small children in order to recruit them to be the next generation of football fanatics. 

There haven’t been any credible cases brought against the NFL with regards to this issue, but there are certainly rumblings of dissatisfaction among parents. Part of the reason for this is that public opinion is shifting out of favor with the NFL due to the sport’s high number of head-related injuries and lasting effects of concussions that they have failed to acknowledge or address. It will be interesting to see how the issue plays out. 

The Effects of Advertising on Children

In the past, parents have been less attentive to the issue of advertising to children. They didn’t have access to the same data that we do now and companies also weren’t as aggressive when marketing to children. The economy is such that any smart company that has products aimed at children are marketing them in some way or another to the beings that ultimately end up with their products in their hands: children. This, in the recent years, has been considered good business.

However, we are starting to see that there are many negative effects to marketing to children. Mostly, children bear these negatives and are saddled with the consequences for years to come. There are many negative effects of advertising to children, and some are more obvious than others. Either way, parents are starting to take the issue seriously and fight these battles for them while the children hardly know they exist. 

Of all the negative effects, the most obvious is probably obesity. As evidenced by the above example of McDonald’s marketing campaign aimed at children, fast food companies are not afraid to target youth. The consequence of this is undoubtedly their weight and general health. When children are enabled by parents who succumb to highly pressurized marketing, their entire future can be put in jeopardy. Normalizing fast food as regular meals has already taken its toll on a couple of generations, and it will take a toll on this one as well if marketing efforts to small children continue. 

General health is also a major concern. This is evidenced by the Juul marketing campaign. Though they have since shifted to other marketing tactics, the early campaigns of Juul were targeted at a very young audience that called their motives into question. Juul devices have since been linked to a myriad of health problems, including nicotine addiction and respiratory problems. Weight isn’t the only concern when it comes to youthful advertising, and Juul carries almost as much burden in this category as fast food restaurants. 

The amount of screen time that kids get is another area affected by advertisements. There are always ads circulating for new shows, games, and other activities that are carried out on a screen. As we are learning, increased screen time can lead to a lot of deficiencies in a child’s social life, coping mechanisms, physical health, and learning abilities. 


While companies have been, for the most part, able to get away with advertising to children at large scale for a couple decades now, we are starting to see this type of marketing slow down as the public catches on and recognises the negative effects. There are a number of open court cases that could shape how companies advertise or do not advertise in the future to children and other young audience groups.

What do you think?

Written by Keith Nallawalla

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