How Brands and Online Marketers Are Targeting Youth Online

March 1, 2023

Advertising and marketing have come a long way since traditional print and TV ads. When we were younger teens, advertisements directed at youth were primarily found during Saturday morning cartoons or in teen-oriented magazines. Today, given that youth are spending more and more time online (1) (2), companies (3) are leveraging various tools and platforms on social media and gaming platforms to capture attention specific to product sales, and young audiences are often the target of these efforts. In this posting, we will explore some of the most common tactics used by marketers and brand vendors to reach young consumers that parents, caregivers, educators, and even youth should be aware of.

A 2018 study revealed that 95% of apps targeted at preschoolers contain advertising that is specifically directed at youth (4). However, these ads and content are often blurred making it difficult for young audiences to differentiate between the two. Deceptive, unclear, or hidden advertising aimed at youth can be confusing and make it harder for parents to keep track of what their kiddos are being exposed to online. Although some marketing firms and vendors include disclaimers with their targeted ads, preteens, and younger teenagers may lack the ability to comprehend or even read these disclaimers. As a result, they may not fully grasp the meaning of the content they encounter, even if disclaimers are present.

As mentioned, youth spend a significant amount of time online; this time is often spent on social media sites, gaming sites, or watching videos on platforms like YouTube, Twitch, or TikTok. This fact makes youth particularly vulnerable to the suggestibility of online visual marketing, advertising, and consumerism. As an example, the very popular Ryan’s channel on YouTube which presently has over 34 million subscribers, is an example of a channel that focuses more on consumerism than entertainment in our opinion (5). However, pre-teens and younger teens who follow this channel may not fully understand this fact and may be influenced by the products that Ryan is featuring on his channel either overtly or covertly.

Influencers, such as Ryan, or other social media personalities with large followings, are increasingly being used by brands to promote their products. In fact, some research found that 70% of teens trust youth influencers more than traditional celebrities (6) These influencers often receive payment or free products in exchange for featuring a specific brand in their online content. Young audiences are particularly vulnerable to the influence of these individuals, as they may view them as role models and someone who they can trust.

Other marketing tactics being targeted at youth include:

  • Microtransactions – these are small purchases, which are strategically placed hidden advertisements within an app or game, often to unlock additional features or items like a gaming skin. These transactions are often targeted at young consumers who may not fully understand the value of money. In some cases, microtransactions can lead to overspending, which can be a cause of concern for parents.

  • Stealth Advertising – this is advertising that is disguised as entertainment or content. For example, a YouTube video that features a product review may be sponsored by the brand, but this may not be explicitly disclosed to viewers. Similarly, blurred advertising involves creating content that blurs the line between advertising and entertainment, making it difficult for viewers to differentiate between the two.

  • Deceptive Marketing – this involves making false or exaggerated claims about a product. This type of marketing is particularly dangerous when targeted at young consumers who may not have the critical thinking skills to evaluate these claims.

  • “Branded worlds” and “Advertgames” – are used by marketers to reach young audiences. Platforms like Roblox, a popular game with millions of users, often feature branded content from companies like Nike, Vans, Kellogg’s, Forever21 within the game. These advertisements may be overt or hidden features (known as “Easter eggs” by kids), making them difficult to identify as advertising.

If companies can capture the loyalty of young consumers early, they are likely to remain paying customers for life. In today’s onlife world, marketing techniques that appeal to younger audiences are constantly evolving and have become a significant and very profitable industry online. It’s important for caregivers and parents to stay informed about these changes and monitor their children’s exposure to online advertising in all its forms.

Armed with the information in this post, parents and caregivers can engage their children in informed discussions regarding the impacts of deceitful targeted marketing and advertising techniques, as well as the underlying reasons behind their child’s desire to acquire a certain product. By having these ongoing conversations, youth can develop critical thinking skills that apply to online marketing approaches which will create resilient social media users, equipped to make informed purchasing choices as they navigate the onlife world.

As Daniel Lyons of Newsweek stated:

“The most important thing to understand about most Social Networks & Apps is that you are not their customer, you are their inventory. You are the product a Social Network is selling.  Most Social Networks real customers are advertisers.  You, as a Social Network member, are useful only because you can be packaged up and sold to advertisers.  The more Information Social Networks can get from you, the more you are worth.”

Digital Food For Thought

The White Hatter


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