Ethical Issues in Marketing to Children



            Cognition theories prove the effective use of knowledge and concepts of psychology in marketing in order to attract consumers to their products without their deliberate consent. Due to this reason, psychologist community is highly against the marketing tactics in practice now a days. Psychologists are more concerned about the use of marketing and promotional strategies targeting the vulnerable group of audience especially children. On the other hand, businesses are finding more and more ways to aggressively market their products to this vulnerable group. The purpose of this study is to review research literature to identify various practices of unethical marketing to children. The study also explains the ways in which these unethical marketing practices target the children from the very early age and establish their brands among them. Moreover, this review finds out the negative impacts and long lasting consequences of these unethical marketing practices carried out by the two major business markets i.e. gambling and food markets. At the end the study concludes the findings from the research literature and provides recommendations suggestions for the avoidance of unethical marketing practices by governments, businesses and researchers.

Ethical Issues in Marketing to Children


Marketing is the heart of any business’s success as successful marketing is directly proportional to business success. Marketing covers advertising, customer relationships, promotional campaigns and sales activities which in turn define the level of business profitability. Ethics is as important subject in the area of marketing as it is in any other area of business. Ethical marketing is a philosophy that guides all the efforts with honesty, fairness and social responsibility. A popular anti-marketing stance terms any kind of marketing to be inherently evil either towards personal autonomy, in terms of harming the competitors, and to the society by manipulating social values. Children, elders and economically disadvantaged consumers are categorized as vulnerable targets for marketers in terms of marketing ethics. Majority of ethics and social responsibility communities are of the view that targeting vulnerable audience in marketing campaigns to take advantage of their vulnerability is unfair and unethical. The purpose of this paper is to establish that unethical marketing to children has negative impact on children’s physical and psychological health. This paper will review research literature to find the unethical marketing practices targeting one vulnerable group of target audience i.e. children. The paper will also try to justify how and to what extent do these unethical practices of marketing affect children’s physical and psychological health.

Unethical Marketing Practices Targeting Children

Despite set regulations and policies, various businesses find ways to carry out their unethical marketing practices in one way or the other way. Here are some of the examples:

Using Knowledge of Child Psychology in Marketing Themes

Use of concepts and knowledge related to child psychology for advertisement purposes is an unethical practice. According to Puiu (2008), the use of concepts and knowledge of child psychology in developing marketing themes is intended to exploit these concepts for the purpose of promoting products and services to children. Since till the age of 8 to 9 years, children are not completely aware of the facts and entire realities of advertisements, psychologists are of the view that advertising anything targeted to this age group is unethical. The reason is that the cognitive structure among this age group is in the development phase and extremely sensitive to be easily influenced by anything. They are unable to differentiate between advertisement and news, and hence that is the reason, that it is unethical to use them as target audience for any kind of promotions.

Development of Brand Name Loyalty since Childhood

            Research shows that the age from which marketers start targeting children as consumers has dramatically dropped. Starting with the brand of diapers at the first hour of birth, the child recognizes almost 100 trademarks at the age of 3 years. Interestingly, as the child starts talking, he/she asks for brand names rather than product itself (Puiu, 2008).

Marketing through schools by involving in educational processes

Another major source of marketing to children has been the schools. Puiu found that marketers provide various incentives and supports to schools and in return they acquire exhibition spaces, display boards, and advertising and supply contracts for their foods and other items. Thus marketers establish their brand awareness among children at the school environment.

Promotion of Toys and Games inspired by Programs

Toys and games industry has been introducing new games and toys which represent themes and characters from movies which only allowed for teenagers and adults. However there are no age regulations for toys and games inspired by violent and inappropriate adult and teenage movies. Consequently children ask for such toys and games which are inspired by themes inappropriate for them.

Deeply Engaging Techniques for Marketing Sugary Cereals to Children through Online Media

Various regulations set for traditional marketing are aimed at limiting the unethical marketing practices targeting the vulnerable target audience like children and elderly consumers of the products. However, in practice, some of the businesses have found their ways out to exploit gaps in these regulations and continue their unethical practices. One example of such gaps is the use of deeply engaging techniques for marketing unhealthy, sugary cereals to children through online media.

Cheyne, Dorfman, Bukofzer, and Harris (2013) state that since children television has been limited to show advertisements not more than 12 minutes per hour, however, there is no limit on the online advertisements through internet and websites. Since majority of the children have a significantly longer and frequent presence online, the cereal marketers have been exploiting this gap by developing websites which are deeply engaging children in entertainment games and then promoting their unhealthy food products for longer periods of times and in more aggressive and engaging ways possible. The cereal businesses are carrying out unethical practices in various ways. They are running their advertisements for longer than allowed time slots. They are compelling children through deep engagement techniques to unintentionally accept their brands. Moreover, majority of the products are unhealthy.

Cross-promotion Techniques using Licensed Characters

Another unethical practice in the field of marketing has been the use of licensed characters in cross-promotion of unhealthy foods targeting children. Harris, Schwartz, and Brownell (2010) found that cross-promotional strategy has been very significant in advertising foods to children and youth. They further explain that majority of the foods advertised to children and youth through licensed characters and imagery on grocery packaging have been found to be very unhealthy and of very low nutritional value to children and youth.

The study concludes that government and other authorities are required to bring in serious interventions to food marketing policies in order to discourage this unethical practice of marketing unhealthy foods to children and show more care for public and especially child health.

Collection of Children’s Behavioral Data for Food Marketing Purposes

Collection of data on someone’s behavioral patterns without their consent is unethical. Online websites enable the marketers to access these behavioral patterns through the use of cookies which provide access to information stored on the computers.

Cheyne et. Al (2013) finds that marketers of breakfast cereals use these techniques to collect data on the behavioral patterns of children who visit and engage on their websites. These behavioral data are then used for without their consent to devise further strategies to market unhealthy food products to these children. This is another extreme form of unethical marketing practice.

Uncontrolled Marketing Practices for Gambling

            Gambling has been marketed excessively through various media and adopting strategies that make it easy for children and youth to get affected negatively. Researchers find that various marketing strategies and media used for promoting gambling are such that youth and children are easily exposed to the apparently attractive but inherently harmful effects of gambling.

Monaghan, Derevensky, and Sklar (2008) is a comprehensive study of marketing techniques for promotion of gambling. This research highlights several unethical practices used for marketing of gambling. Below are some of the practices and their role as a potential threat to the vulnerable group of children:

Gambling Advertisements in Media

The role of media in affecting the audience perceptions, attitudes and behaviors is widely acknowledged. Advertising has always been purposed to capture attention and deliver positive attitudes towards a product or service. Youth has been found to be the most vulnerable to the effects of advertising.

Excessive advertisement campaigns for gambling have brought a feeling of normalization, acceptability, harmlessness and credibility among the people who are exposed to these promotions. The most vulnerable group exposed to the negative effects of gambling promotions is that of children and youth. These promotions not only help them learn the principles of gambling but also introduces gambling as an exciting as well as harmless source of entertainment.

The wrong perception that adolescents are likely to capture is that gambling is an easy way to earn money, with little effort, without going to school, in a worry-free way. Youth is exposed to gambling advertisements on television, internet, newspapers, billboards, and magazines. These gambling advertisements have significant negative impacts on youth. Derevensky et al. (2007) found that 42% of young people exposed to gambling advertisements report that gambling advertisements attract them to gamble while another 61% youngsters imagine or dream about who to spend the winnings in gambling.

Gambling Advertisements at Point of Sale

Point of sales marketing of gambling products is designed to display brands at the place of purchase in order to attract the target customers. Research shows that point of sale marketing has been successful in creating brand preferences among the youngsters. Research has also found that point of sales promotion of gambling exposes children and adolescents to gambling at local convenience stores and that it has moved youth and adolescents to purchase gambling products like lottery tickets etc. Hence point of sale marketing of gambling products is again unethical and dangerous to this vulnerable class of children and youth.

Sponsorship of Sports

Gambling and gaming companies have been involved in sponsoring sports events which involve children and youth. These sponsorships allow gaming and gambling companies to promote their harmful products in close vicinity to minors which is completely unethical. According to Maher, Wilson, Signal, and Thomson (2006) sponsorship sports has been a source of indirect promotion which for the purpose of company’s goodwill glamorizes and associates harmful products with healthy positive images, thus diminishing the effectiveness of health promotion programs for youth.

Promotional Products

Gambling and gaming companies are introducing more and more promotional products like T-shirts, hats, mouse pads, and a lot other items which are mostly used by children and adolescents. Research further found that using promotional items related to alcohol and cigarette increase the tendency of smoking and drinking among youth, and these findings can be extrapolated to youth and children using promotional items advertising gambling. Hence the production of such promotional items for gambling which can be used by youth and children is obviously very unethical and must be avoided.

Celebrity Endorsements

Celebrity endorsements for gambling sites and gaming companies not only attract youth and minors to watch gambling advertisements but are also attracted towards these products and services with minimal attention given. Mobile gaming and internet advertisements of gambling are also effective sources of promotions for gambling which have no restrictions for youth and children to get exposed to. All these practices are highly unethical ways of marketing which directly or indirectly leave significant negative impacts on children.


Effects of unethical marketing to children

As discussed earlier, due to the use of knowledge of child psychology for the purpose of promotions, marketing to children is always being seen as unethical practice among majority of the researchers. However, the marketers have not only been using unethical ways to promote products to children, the more unethical aspect is that majority of the promotions actually cause harm to children in one way or the other. In this section of the paper, various negative effects of marketing to children will be discussed:

Obesity among children

            Unethical food marketing to children has caused an ever increasing trend of obesity among children. According to Nestle (2006), American children spend around $30 billion annually on unhealthy junk foods and food businesses introduce more and more such products to capture the maximum part of this market. Out of more than 600 children food products introduced since 1994, Nestle found that only one fourth were healthier. The study found that these foods have been the major source of obesity among children.

Gambling Habits

            Point of sales promotions of gambling and lotteries provide an easy and close exposure of these activities to children and youth. Research shows that point of sales promotions of gambling and lottery tickets increase the tendency of impulse purchasing among youth and children. Because in this type of promotions, the advertisements are usually placed at the point of purchase of other items usually near candies and purchase counters. Hence this unethical practice causes promotion of gambling habits among youth.

Sponsorship of sports also has a direct impact on the tendency of gambling among children and youth. A research on popularity of cigarette brands showed that children usually preferred those cigarette brands which represented their favorite leagues or players. The same concept is applicable to gambling when various gambling companies sponsor various sports. Since sports is a healthy activity and is targeted towards healthy life style among children and youth, this sponsorship of sports by gambling companies directly hit this vulnerable group of audience (Pritchard, 1992).

Promotional products like T-shirts, Caps, Cups, Mouse Pads representing various gambling and gaming companies have no regulations on the size and age groups that they target. Hence children are more susceptible to the effects of these promotions. According to elaboration likelihood model of persuasion (Petty, Wegener, and Fabrigar, 1997), these types of promotions are more effective in creating likelihood of adoption of any promoted products from cigarettes and alcohols to gambling among children and adolescents.

Development of Aggressive and Violent Behaviors among Children

Research shows that design and development of toys and games representing violent and aggressive characters from adult and teenage targeting movies are on the rise around the world. Although there are regulations of age limits for movies, however, there are no regulations for age limits in the choice and design of toys and games. Hence children are attracted to various violent characters like batman, spiderman etc through promotion of toys and games based on these characters. Use of these toys and games not only expose children to the characters unwanted at their age, but also when they don’t find the same excitement within the toys, they are discouraged.


The study justifies that since the advertisement and promotional strategies are always based on offering attraction to consumers within products and services, these strategies always involve manipulation, unrealistic commitments, and use of knowledge and concepts of psychology of humans without their consent. Due to this reason, cognitive and other psychologists have always shown their concerns about advertisement to children. Since adults still have more power and exposure to think and decide among good and bad, however, children are innocent and use of their cognition for the benefits of businesses is termed as highly unethical.

The literature also concludes that businesses have been continuously developing and deploying strategies to exploit the vulnerabilities of under age groups for their profitability. Although there are some regulations existing as a struggle to keep these promotions within ethical limits, however, businesses always find ways to manipulate those regulations and continue their unethical practices of marketing to children.

The study found that unethical marketing to children has been bringing in extremely dangerous consequences for this vulnerable group of audience i.e. the children. The major negative consequences of unethical marketing to children have been found to be increasing obesity among children due to unhealthy food products and its availability at the ease of every step to children. Moreover, the uncontrolled promotion of gambling through various ways has been found to negative affect the habits of children and youth in terms of developing gambling habits among them.

Researchers and governments need to find and set strict regulations for these types of unethical promotions and marketing to children in order to save the children and avoid these negative consequences of unethical promotions. Moreover, businesses need to show strong willingness to practice corporate social responsibilities.



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Harris, J. L., Schwartz, M. B., & Brownell, K. D. (2010). Marketing foods to children and            adolescents: licensed characters and other promotions on packaged foods in the supermarket. Public health nutrition, 13(03), 409-417.

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