Children in Advertising: A Highly Sexualized Society

Children and teenagers are not exempt from the influence of advertisements and the constructed ideals that come along with it. From a very early age, children watch television and soak up what it means to be “normal.” Boys see themselves in advertisements as tough and towering down over the smaller and shorter girls. If shown by themselves, boys are more active in play, and girls are more passive. While a boy might be playing a sport such as soccer or football in an advertisement, girls are putting on makeup or playing with dolls.This is inescapable because the average child between the ages of two and eleven spends thirty-two hours a week watching television, while individuals between the ages of twelve and seventeen spend approximately twenty-three hours per week doing the same (Collins and Lenz, 2011). This is equivalent to an adult part-time job. Children do not necessarily understand that advertisements are trying to sell products; instead, kids only see the feelings of the people in the moments of the commercial (Levin and Kilbourne, 2008, p. 39). Specifically, ads contain role models thatcharacterize what it means to be cool and hip. Additionally, children are sexualized as adult-like beings, while adults are presented as child-like. Both of these points have implications as children age to become adults, because they become equipped with narrow ideas of what it means to be normal. Furthermore, this creates a perpetual cycle as upcoming generations learn what it means to be a part of the popular group.

Role models are in more places than television alone. Superstar singers, such as Spice Girls, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Miley Cyrus all influence the youth with what it means to be popular. These pop stars have marketed themselves as sexy and experienced, and naturally, teenagers believe that it is normal and even expected to be a sexually experienced individual (Kilbourne, 1999). Music that is supposed to be for adults has been mainstreamed for children in a CD collection named Kidz Bop. The same lyrics with violence, sex, and discrimination are sung and recorded by children singers and marketed toward a tween audience. Magazines targeting teenagers,such as Jane, have front cover articles like “15 Ways Sex Makes You Prettier” (Kilbourne, 1999). Certainly, this is a risky message for adults and is potentially dangerous for teenagers.
Other companies, such as Disney, have made characters that embody grown women’s behaviors. For instance, princesses are almost always marrying princes at the end of stories and living happily ever after. These stories are also overwhelmingly heterosexist.They always portray romantic relationships between males and females, rather than between males and males or females and females. The typical male in a Disney story is characterized by hegemonic qualities, often being tall with broad shoulders, acting aggressive to win the princess, and white. Very rarely does the underdog or “imperfect” male win the princess, and when he does, it is because he has won the fight against another male.

Females are learning at younger ages that their bodies, from head to toe, must be perfected in order to be considered beautiful. Club Libby Lu, a clothing store for young girls, offers makeover parties for birthdays andother special occasions. With these makeover parties, girls as young as four are offered pedicures, spa treatments, and make-up kits (Kilbourne, 1999). This is significantly different than it was thirty years ago, when playing dress up in mom’s clothing was the norm. Kilbourne (1999) references several different advertisements in her discussion Killing Us Softly 3, each of them targeted towards making female teenagers more idealized and sexualized. “Gotta problem? Fix it” was a catchphrase used to sella cosmetic bag in magazines (Kilbourne, 1999). This company used a marketing tactic to advertise the many bodily“imperfections” that teens needed tocover with makeup. The actual tragedy of this ad, however, is not the catchphrase; it is the simple fact that American society has placed a high price on looks to be beautiful, and teenagers are made to feel that they need cosmetic bags to carry all of the makeup that will transform their faces into something acceptable.Another makeup advertisement used “make your mark” as a catchphrase (Kilbourne, 1999). It seems that teenage girls can only make a mark on the world if they do it with makeup.

Boys are not exempt from being sexualized as children. The text on an advertisement for Drakkar Noir cologne targeting teenage boys was, “Do you want to be the one who she tells her deep dark secrets to, or do you want to be her deep dark secret?” (Kilbourne, 2010). This ad strongly suggests that boys should be the “dark secret”. Ads like this influence boys to believe that feminine qualities like communication and compassion should be replaced with secrets and toughness (Kilbourne, 2010). Qualities become polarized, withsome being more valued than others. Masculine traits like aggression and dominance overrule feminine traits such as kindness and obedience. Kilbourne (1999) references a pants advertisement which says, “You can learn more about anatomy after school.” This ad explicitly suggests that teenagers should use sex to learn about human anatomy, while parents fight to have proper sex education in schools (Kilbourne, 2010).  Kilbourne (2010) explains, “We are supposed to be innocent but sexy, virginal but experienced.” With mixed signals from media, teenage girls don’t know how to act. There is no wondering about why the United States has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world (Kilbourne, 2010).

Not only have children been sexualized to appear adult-like; many ads have sexualized adults to look like children.One advertisement in Killing Us Softly 3 showed a grown woman sucking a pacifier to sell lipstick (Kilbourne, 1999). This is a prime example of how women are made to look like children in advertisements. Another catchphrase for perfume was, “Nothing so sensual was ever so innocent” (Kilbourne, 1999). Again, this ad links sexuality to innocence and childhood. But the most pervasive advertisement had the tag, “Because innocence is sexier than you think” (Kilbourne, 1999). This ad was for body lotion, and everything about the commercial made adults appearchild-like. First, the lotion claimed to make the user “baby soft.” Next, the grown woman sat forward, cleavage showing through what appeared to be a too-small girl’s dress, legs crossed like a child, with a stare for the camera. Lastly, digging deeper, the form of the container that the lotion was packaged in was shaped like a bottle for a newborn.

Recently, there has been a rise in the number of advertisements using teenagers as victims or potential victims of violence (Kilbourne, 2010). One advertisement featured a young girl in the elevator saying, “Push my buttons. I’m looking for a guy who can totally floor me. Who won’t stop till the top. You must live in sin” (Kilbourne, 1999). This ad was used to sell perfume and the message is clear: It is acceptable for a male to be persistent with sexual advances. Another ad for perfume used the slogan, “Fetish #16, apply generously to your neck so he can smell the scent as you shake your head ‘no’” (Kilbourne, 1999). This clearly leads a man to believe that “no” actually means“yes.” Lastly, the tag for window shoppers outside of a shoe store was most gruesome, “We’d kill for these shoes” (Kilbourne, 1999). The window display showed a young teenage girl in a body bag with blood on her face, with a shoe across her throat. This display illustrates how a simple shoe can easily be conceived as more important than a human’s life.

Sexualization of children in ads is not a problem that can be easily fixed, since children, teenagers, and adults are socialized by media on a daily basis. Advertisements comprise a large part of a person’s day, whether they be seen on television, billboards, clothing, buses, or magazines. A large part of the problem people face isthat they feel exempt from the influence of advertisements becausethe material conveyed in ads is mostly subliminal (Kilbourne 2010).
Perhaps, society should collectively agree that there is a deep-rooted problem in the way America uses advertising and rise up against companies that believe it is profitable to exploit children for the sake of profit. Society needs to create an environment where the looks of a female does not equal the worth of a female. Furthermore, society needs to construct an atmosphere where children can be children and stop hyper-sexualizing teenagers into adulthood. In unison, there could be progression into a less corrupt society.















Collins, L. (2011, September 18). The end of innocence:the cost of sexualizing kids. Retrieved from

Kilbourne, J. (1999). Killing Us Softly 3 [Video file] [Video file]. Retrieved July 10, 2013, from

Kilbourne, J. (2010). Killing Us Softly 4 [Video file] [Video file]. Retrieved June 28, 2013, from

Levin, D., & Kilbourne, J. (2008).So sexy so soon:the new sexualized childhood and what parents can do to protect their kids. (p. 39). New York : Random House Inc.


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