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.