How advertisers tell our kids what they want for Christmas

By: Eric Rasmussen, PhD

As the story goes, Santa Claus is one busy guy. For 11 months of each year, from dawn ‘til dusk, he and his elves rarely leave the workshop (except for the occasional cookie with milk) because getting ready for Christmas is more than a full time job. That’s how the story goes, anyway. But the true story about Santa’s schedule is that he probably has the most cush job in the world. It’s a story about an 11-month vacation, advertisers, and unsuspecting children.

Santa, first of all, is very astute. He tries to anticipate what good little girls and boys want for Christmas, but he’s smart enough to know that it’s not wise to spend all year making toys without having done a little market research first. Nobody wants a warehouse full of toys that kids don’t want. You see, Christmas lists don’t start arriving at the North Pole until this time of year, so being the good business man that he is, Santa waits until he knows what kids want, and then he starts making the toys. So for 11 months out of the year, Santa lounges around the North Pole with Mrs. Claus sipping hot cocoa, just waiting for kids’ wish lists to populate his inbox. 

Ideally, of course, Santa wants as much lead time as possible to begin making toys, but kids don’t know what they want for Christmas until this time of year. And that’s because advertisers don’t tell kids what they want for Christmas until the Christmas advertising season begins. According to Nielsen, more than half of all toy advertising dollars are spent during the months of October, November, and December. And if we are to believe the academic research on how children develop their Christmas wish lists, kids don’t know what they want for Christmas until advertisers tell them what they want. 

For example, in one of the most interesting studies about how children develop their Christmas wish lists, researchers recorded commercials on two popular children’s TV networks and identified the brands that were most advertised over a period of several weeks. They then asked 250 children ages 7-12 to make a list of what they wanted for Christmas, and how often the children watched shows on the two children’s TV networks. The study found that the more time children spent watching TV on one of the networks, the more likely they were to have included brands that were advertised on the network on their Christmas wish lists. In other words, children’s wish lists are made up of the brands they see advertised on TV.

Said even more clearly, kids don’t know what they want for Christmas until advertisers tell them what they want. When Santa makes his list and checks it twice, then, he’s most likely checking it to make sure it coincides with the brands that have spent the most on advertising dollars during the holiday season.

As a children and media researcher I’m convinced that for adults, advertising plays an important informational purpose in our society. But when it comes to kids, the rules change. Children are more prone to believe things they see on TV and are less able to perceive that media content is intended to persuade them. Without that ability, they are less able to defend themselves against the persuasion techniques employed in advertisements. For a variety of reasons, children are just more susceptible to the influences of advertising.

Knowing this, the work of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood becomes increasingly important. But until we reduce or eliminate advertisements aimed at children, there is something we as parents can do. Research shows that talking to kids about advertising can help them become more critical consumers. In fact, one study found that the relationship between children’s exposure to advertising and both children’s materialism and purchase requests was weakest for kids whose parents frequently talk with them about television advertising.

Unlike Santa’s job, the job of parents is tough. We’re going up against some of the most powerful, most sophisticated corporations in the world. But nobody has a more powerful influence on how children respond to media than do parents. So this Christmas I don’t want a new smartphone. I don’t want a new laptop. If he really does see me when I’m sleeping and when I’m awake, then Santa had better check his list twice for my wish this Christmas. All I want for Christmas this year is for parents to talk with their kids about advertising just a little bit more.

About the author
Eric Rasmussen, PhD, is a husband, father of four, professor of communication, and children and media researcher. He is the author of, and his mission is to get research about children and media off the academic shelves and into the hands of those who need it most — parents.