Q: At what age is it developmentally ok for kids to see The Lego Movie and even Star Wars with their parents? Is the subliminal (and hidden) marketing in movies unethical, especially given how well it's made?
~Lamenting over Lego, USA
A: Dear Lamenting,
Marketing consumer products through TV and movies has been occurring since these technologies became mass media. (What better way to reach the masses?) Toy merchandising based on movies exploded with the Star Wars franchise and has continued steadily since then. The Lego Movie brings this type of interconnected marketing to the forefront in hopes of attracting viewers (both old and young) who are already fans of the brand. In this way the advertising is not meant to be hidden.
Because audiences have become more savvy about spotting product placement, where producers are paid by a company to use only their products on screen and to place them so the audience can always see the label, media are now integrating brands into story, or making the story about the product, as in the case of The Lego Movie.
But what are the ethics of advertising to children at all, through either traditional methods or more sophisticated, pervasive forms? From research, we know that children under 8 years old haven’t yet developed the cognitive capability to understand persuasive intent. That is, they don’t understand that marketers are trying to convince them to want something and trying to increase the ‘nag factor’. (Yes, there really are marketing techniques designed to motivate children to nag their parents to buy products for them.)
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take your child to see The Lego Movie or another entertainment that markets product. What it does mean is that you should assume that marketing, product placement, and brand integration are going to occur in many, if not all, of the entertainment products that you and your children consume.
Subsequently, one of the best things you can do for you children is to teach them to recognize advertising and brand integration when it occurs and to identify the transactions that are taking place. Give them the tools to recognize and think critically about what marketers are trying to sell. This will give kids a sense of empowerment and help them avoid being sucked in by advertising, not just in movies, but virtually all of the commercial media they consume.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,