Look Boys and Girls! Advertising to Children in the 20th Century


My First Cookbook. Imperial Sugar Company, 1959.

My First Cookbook. Imperial Sugar Company, 1959.

Many Americans worry about how much exposure children have to advertising.  We tend to think that ads targeting kids is a relatively recent phenomenon, with the explosion of Saturday morning cartoons and children’s television programming over the last thirty years.  However, advertisers started selling directly to kids, rather than their parents, in the early 20th century.

Companies like Heinz and Palmolive published children’s stories that positively portrayed their products.  By the 1910s companies like the Winchester Rifle Company established contests to encourage the use of their products and by the late 1920s kids could join “clubs” and might receive prizes and higher status if they consumed more of the product.  Some companies promoted products through sponsored radio shows and even through schools, utilizing the authority of school officials as an implicit endorsement.

By mid-century the ways advertisers could target children had multiplied.  Television had already entered most American homes, and in 1953 two of the first television shows aimed exclusively at preschoolers, “Baby Sitter” and “Ding Dong School,” were broadcast.  Companies advertised bicycles, games, and other items on the backs of popular comic books.  Food companies like Imperial Sugar published cookbooks aimed at teaching children to cook using their products.  In 1962, McDonald’s ran its first print advertising campaign and used cartoon-like characters to appeal to children.  As interest in young consumers increased, advertisers consulted the latest psychological studies about how best to target children, who were lumped with teenagers and young adults into a “youth” market until the 1960s.   This segmentation of the market has continued to narrow, with children now broken into two-year age groups like “tweens” or “explorers.”

By the mid 1970s some consumer advocacy groups believed that advertising to children had gotten out of control.  Responding to consumer complaints, the Better Business Bureau formed a “Children’s Advertising Review Unit” to better self-regulate how children were targeted.  Well-known children’s advocate, Peggy Charren, testified before congress in 1979 stating that “children’s advertising should be considered, per se, an unfair commercial practice.”

Despite increased regulation on the part of the U.S. government and consumer advocacy groups, advertising to children continued to grow rapidly.  Television commercials became the number one way advertisers reached children as Saturday morning cartoons exploded in popularity and cable station Nickelodeon launched in 1979.  Fast food companies became more adept at enticing children into their restaurants with kid-focused meals that included toys.  By the late 1990s advertisers extended their reach to these influential customers through the Internet, re-emphasizing “old-fashioned” ways of appealing to children through contests and loyalty clubs.  This exhibit examines the history of advertising to children in the 20th Century through items found in Duke University’s Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History.

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