Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

F or years the consensus in the advertising research community held that kid consumers are just like adult consumers, only smaller.

Babies as young as 6 months old, one researcher has claimed, can form mental images of corporate logos and mascots. By age 4, many kids are able to differentiate between advertisements and other forms of information, according to no fewer than four studies conducted between 1981 and 1995. A 1995 study suggested that 57 percent of 6-year-olds know that ads are trying to sell them stuff, while one-third of kids that age qualify as genuine junior cynics who already question the credibility of ads.

If all this is true, the wee ones arguably are fair game for the billions of dollars’ worth of advertising now aimed at them. But in news that will cheer the increasingly influential anti-kids-advertising lobby, a new study from the U.K. indicates that children may not be savvy mini-consumers at all, but clueless victims who can’t even tell the difference between commercials and actual programs until they are 8 or even 10 years old.

According to lead author Dr. Caroline Oates, none of the 6-year-olds interviewed in the University of Sheffield study understood that advertising is about persuasion. They saw it simply as information. Even many 10-year-olds in the study did not fully understand ads’ persuasive nature. A truly morally responsible society, Oates argues, would protect these defenseless minds by forbidding advertising directly at them. (This, by the way, is what Sweden has done.) Short of that remedy, Oates more practically suggests inculcating tender minds with adultlike skepticism by teaching “media literacy.”

So, which of these studies is right? The answer depends on one’s politics, of course. Those with a financial interest in kid consumers believe the studies that show children are fit to be marketed to. Enemies of commercialism see children as innocents who need to be either protected or wised up.

But there is one assumption on which both sides agree. To wit, that what separates the child consumer from the adult consumer is the latter’s skepticism. That understanding an advertisement’s intent and being hip to its manipulative wiles is an effective defense against its message.

As widely as this conviction is held, the evidence doesn’t seem to support it. At most, adult skepticism has forced advertisers to aim their communications at the child within, with often powerful effect.

One could even argue that as skepticism about advertising has increased, so has advertising’s cultural cachet. A glance at marketing history shows that only after it gave up trying to persuade with rational claims and turned to irrational appeals did marketing begin to encroach on institutions of government, art and even religion. And if there’s so much skepticism about marketing out there, how come these days every person, place and thing aspires to become a brand?

Moreover, adults’ ability to distinguish ads from other kinds of information is not of much use when there really isn’t any difference in the first place. Trying to decide whether Cast Away is an ad for FedEx or not is a little like determining the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. What’s the big deal if the average 6-year-old can’t tell a commercial from a program? Apparently, neither can Keith Reinhard, the chairman of DDB, who recently predicted to Fortune that there will one day be TV channels devoted to commercials, because “it’s all just content.”

Unfortunately, all this blurring can be a mixed blessing. For example, the Sheffield study found that not only did the 6-year-olds fail to comprehend the purpose of the ads they viewed, few of them could recall the brand names being touted either, even after three exposures.

Is it possible that understanding the intent of an ad is an essential prerequisite to being influenced by its message? It would be ironic if the clueless kid is less vulnerable to advertising than the skeptical adult, by virtue of his sheer obliviousness.

Come to think of it, obliviousness, not skepticism, is the most effective way for an adult to resist advertising, too. The challenge facing marketers today is not that consumers are hip to their brand’s positioning; it’s that they don’t notice it. Everywhere brands clamor for attention: on the facades of sports stadiums, on caps and T-shirts, in restaurant bathrooms and, of course, in the media. These constant assaults have made consumers experts in tuning out. The barrage of messages simply blurs into an undifferentiated stream of information.

Kinda like being 6 years old again.