Toy Commercials Are Being Replaced by Something More Nefarious

Kids are getting less exposure to traditional TV ads, but marketers have found sneaky ways to reach them anyway.

A black-and-white photo of children watching television
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Mike Morris, a father of three daughters in a suburb of Dallas, hasn’t had a traditional cable-TV subscription at his house since 2014. When his family visits his father-in-law on holidays, he feels good about that decision all over again.

At home, Morris’s two youngest, ages 8 and 4, only watch shows on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, which don’t show commercials. But at their granddad’s house, they get a rare glimpse of broadcast channels such as Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. Like clockwork, after about 30 minutes of TV, they come bounding his way, begging for new toys. “Any toy that has pink on it,” Morris told me, “it’s ‘Daddy, can I have this? Daddy, can I have this?’”

Kids like Morris’s, who rarely or never see toy commercials, because they don’t watch broadcast TV at home, are part of a growing population. To be sure, they do not represent a majority of kids in the United States, but they make up a significant subgroup: Approximately one in every five U.S. households belongs to a cord-cutting family like Morris’s, according to an eMarketer report from late last year, and the same report projected that this number would rise to one in four by 2022.

Cord-cutting parents have taken note of how their kids’ childhoods differ from their own as a result. Jessica Valenti wrote in The Guardian in 2015 about realizing that her 5-year-old daughter was seeing a toy commercial for the first time in the waiting room at a pediatrician’s office. A colleague of mine mentioned to me recently that when his kids first saw toy commercials, they immediately memorized an entire ad—even the “each sold separately” disclaimer—and he spent the next few days enduring their repeated renditions of the chirpy jingle that accompanies TV ads for the surprise-doll toys known as Boxy Girls. (Given that I still remember every word of the “Wanderer”-parodying jingle for the Doodle Bear from the mid-’90s, this family’s relatively jingle-free lifestyle sounded enviable.)

But just because some kids don’t see commercials doesn’t mean they’re never exposed to toy advertising. While some people understandably see the absence of toy commercials in many modern children’s lives as a welcome development, the truth is that advertisers have just found other—arguably sneakier and more omnipresent—ways to market to children.

Josh Golin, the executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood,told me that his job has actually become a lot harder in recent years. “Television commercials were only one part of the strategy,” he said.

For starters, kids are still bombarded with advertising that happens within the shows they watch. Children’s shows have long featured cute characters who are easily repurposed as stuffed animals or figurines, Golin noted, but in the past few decades, they’ve become especially common (think Peppa Pig and Dora the Explorer)—largely because merchandising opportunities are now baked into the concepts from the start, rather than developed after the fact. Building a broadcast-TV show around an existing product only became legal when the Reagan administration deregulated children’s TV in the ’80s, but since then, “it’s become an increasingly important part of [getting a show made],” Golin said. In many cases, toy companies are involved from day one: Paw Patrol, for example, was a concept the toy company Spin Master pitched to TV networks, eventually partnering with Nickelodeon. Whether kids watch LEGO’s Ninjago on television (with commercials) or Netflix (no commercials), it’s still a fairly transparent ad for toys. “It’s great that you’re cutting out the toy commercials,” Golin said. But often, “the show you’re watching is itself just a commercial for a toy.”

Additionally, the amount of time kids spend in front of screens today makes Golin suspect that they’re marketed to even more than Millennials or Gen X adults were as kids, although he notes that it’s difficult to quantify this. “From my standpoint, kids were watching too much TV 20 years ago. But the fact that screens now go with us everywhere means that you’re always available to marketers,” Golin said. He added that the average age at which kids get their own smartphone is now 10—so starting in fourth grade, kids are available to be marketed to on the school bus, in the lunch line, and anywhere else they might have free time or free hands.

On top of that, of course, there’s YouTube. Jill Murphy, the editor in chief of the nonprofit Common Sense Media, points out that it’s much harder for even cord-cutting parents to shield their kids from YouTube than it is to shield them from traditional TV. YouTube not only serves up advertisements, but also has unboxing videos, toy-review videos, beauty and morning-routine videos, and other seemingly homemade clips that feature young people using, talking about, and reviewing products. These videos enjoy outrageous popularity among kids and teens: Ryan’s World, a YouTube channel in which an 8-year-old boy reviews toys, has more than 23 million subscribers.

Often, Murphy notes, adults can easily tell that online personalities are hawking products that companies have sent to them for free. But that’s not as clear to kids, who are less familiar with the ways in which advertisers grab their attention and translate it into profit. “I’m constantly explaining to my own kids, ‘You know this person was sent this product, right?’” she told me. “Like, ‘Some company has sent this influencer a number of products. This person is getting paid for the post that they’re putting together, and so it’s modern-day advertising.’” YouTube’s Kids section has a policy that bans videos for which an influencer or reviewer has received money or freebies to promote a product—but as Golin pointed out, the policy hasn’t always been perfectly enforced. At the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, “we have seen cases on YouTube Kids where we know that there was paid product placement,” Golin said. “We don’t know where the breakdown of the system occurs—whether the creator didn’t disclose, or whether YouTube’s algorithm isn’t working. Both are definitely possible.”

A representative for YouTube acknowledged that YouTube Kids bars paid product promotion, and pointed out that creators are expected to check a box during the uploading phase that signifies a paid product promotion. When I brought to their attention a paid promotional video starring a popular toy influencer named Evan that was marked as such but still watchable on YouTube Kids, the video was soon removed from YouTube Kids. It’s still watchable on the main YouTube site, however, because YouTube proper allows paid endorsements.

To Murphy and Golin, advertising disguised as a real person’s organic enthusiasm for a product feels more insidious than traditional commercials, and not just because kids don’t know the difference. “What’s unique about [influencer content] is that it feels more personal. Kids form an attachment,” Murphy told me. And because many young influencers film their videos in their bedrooms, “it feels right out of their home. So it probably has more power than if it’s just an actor trying to sell somebody a product.”

That said, not all kids become immediately or overpoweringly obsessed with toys they’ve seen on YouTube. Mike Morris, for example, thinks the fact that his daughters’ exposure to new toys is (mostly) limited to YouTube might even give them a more realistic idea of what the toy is and how it works than a traditional, high-production-value, potentially deceptive toy commercial would. (Whenever Morris’s young self ended up in possession of a toy he’d wanted after seeing it on a TV commercial, he remembered, “it always seemed so much neater before it was in my hand.”) Plus, he noted, toy commercials seem to inspire a gotta have it right this minute urgency in his daughters that exposure to toys on YouTube doesn’t.

When Morris’s 8-year-old had a stash of Christmas money to spend recently, she wandered around Target for a while before she settled on a set of what Morris described as “those squish toys that you color” (real name: Cra-Z-Squeezies). She’d wanted some ever since she saw a YouTube personality play with them in a video, but “it wasn’t even on our radar that she wanted that,” Morris told me. “There was an ability to delay gratification.”

Morris added that the lack of commercials has actually been one of the biggest benefits of cord-cutting—and not just for his children. Commercials “were working on our desires, too, the way they were for the kids,” he said. One of his own worst impulses has disappeared in the years since his family decided to cut out cable: the late-night urge to eat fast food. With any luck, so Morris’s logic goes, his daughters will grow up knowing neither the frustration of an earwormy toy jingle stuck in their head nor the TV-induced 9 p.m. craving for Taco Bell.