How to raise savvy consumers

In 1977, when I was in first grade, all I wanted for Christmas was a pair of Zips tennis shoes. The commercial that ran during Saturday-morning cartoons (tinyurl.com/zips1977) was brilliant. 

It opened with a boy lacing up a pair of bright orange Zips on his front steps and an announcer saying in a weighty voice, “When you put on a pair of Zips, you’re off — and running!”

The kid sprang from the steps with a sound effect much like the running sound made by the Six Million Dollar Man — cha cha cha cha cha! 

I couldn’t help but feel a thrill as the kid bolted down the street, a siren-like whine building in the background, while the announcer told us more: “Fast off the line, and they corner like skateboards.” 

I’d never considered that I needed to be fast off the line, or what the line was, or that cornering was important — but it all sounded awesome.

The camera focused alternately between the beautiful orange shoes, with their splashy Zs across the sides, and the hard-running kid, his Chachi-style hair flopping in the wind, all in dramatic slow-mo. 

And then, as the boy leaped over a hedge — as one is wont to do — the announcer got his best line in: “Jump in Zips, and you won’t be coming down for a long, long time.”

As the kid landed, the siren whine climaxed with a perfect superhero landing sound that echoed the cha cha cha from earlier. The final tagline: “Fast-movin’, long-leapin’: Zips — for kids.”

Believe me when I say, I needed those shoes.

Our kids don’t watch Saturday-morning cartoons the way we did, but, of course, they’re exposed to plenty of commercials and other marketing on TV, online, on DVDs, in video games, on phones and other devices — even in school. 

In fact, according to the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood (commercialfreechildhood.org), the average American kid sees more than 25,000 commercials per year on TV alone. 

All that advertising works. If it didn’t, companies wouldn’t be spending about $17 billion a year in the U.S. advertising just to kids. 

The holiday season is a great time to talk with kids about being smart consumers. It all starts with being smart about media. For younger kids, that means strictly limiting their media exposure, especially media with commercials. When young kids do see commercials, help them understand the difference between them and the shows they’re watching.

Help older kids identify advertisements in video games and online, as well as subtler messaging like logos and product placement. Teach them not to click on ads online or enter contests, especially contests that require an email address or phone number. 

When it comes to commercials and ads, help kids learn to see through the tricks advertisers use to make their products look appealing:

Ads show only the good times: You never see a kid in a commercial struggling with the instructions or accidentally breaking a breakable part. 

They exaggerate the benefits: That Zips commercial didn’t actually tell me that the shoes would make me run faster or jump higher. But it sure did hint at it.

They imply you’ll be popular: Businesses know that kids want to be accepted by their peers. That’s why many commercials show groups of kids gathered with the kid who has the product. 

They enhance the appeal with effects: Sound effects like those in the Zips commercial or a realistic explosion in a commercial for action figures make products seem larger than life. Camera angles can make toys look bigger or more substantial than they really are. Cartoons or special effects can add a magical feel.

Testimonies are paid for: If a tween celebrity says she loves a certain online fashion game, it may not be true. 

Packaging is deceiving: Show kids how to look at the fine print. Are all the pieces depicted on the box included inside? Are the pictures to scale? Will you need batteries? 

People tend to make decisions based mostly on emotion, not reason — kids especially so. That’s why ads prey on our emotions. And that’s why kids still need our guidance on purchasing decisions, even if we teach them to be skeptical. But a little education now goes a long way toward raising media-savvy consumers.