Broadening the Definition of Express and Implicit Representation in Children’s Advertising

Feb 18, 2021 by By Rashida Gordon, CARU Analyst, BBB National Programs

Representation matters. That phrase has been around for a while, yet it is one whose impact and directive have become more apparent over the years. One way to gauge exactly how far we have come in implementing diversity and inclusion is by analyzing what we see on our screens, particularly in advertising.  

At the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU), our advertising guidelines currently state: 

Advertisers are encouraged to capitalize on the potential of advertising to serve an educational role and influence positive personal qualities and behaviors in children, e.g., being honest and respectful of others, taking safety precautions, engaging in physical activity. 

CARU, a division of the independent, non-profit BBB National Programs, is responsible for, among other things, monitoring the online environment to ensure advertisers comply with the law and guidelines that protect children from deceptive or inappropriate advertising.

In doing so, CARU understands how critical it is for advertisers to avoid social stereotyping and appeals to prejudice. Through CARU's advertising guidelines and the precedent set by its case decisions, advertisers are encouraged to incorporate people of color and other under-represented groups in advertisements and to present positive role models whenever possible.     

CARU also recognizes the special vulnerabilities of children in light of their limited knowledge, experience, sophistication, and maturity. Due to children’s highly impressionable nature, CARU often places itself in children’s shoes to gain insight into the role advertising has in shaping their perceptions.  

While CARU’s monitoring of advertising and marketing directed to children under age 13 is targeted at ensuring advertisers meet the minimum threshold, we encourage advertisers to meet the moment and be willing to go above and beyond, striving to implement diversity and inclusion at every level in their ecosystems and in all ways that diversity and inclusion can be represented. 

Certainly, there are some aspects of diversity and inclusion that are easier to spot, including racial and socioeconomic diversity. There are other areas where a nuanced understanding of the multiple layers of representation is required to spot the mountains we still have in front of us to climb. Demonstrating an awareness of these layers helps advertisers go above the bar and position themselves as brands that embody diversity and inclusion.  

For example, today it is possible for an ad to display racial diversity yet simultaneously rely on stereotypical gender roles that ostracize a community, such as in an ad that features an interracial family with two children where the boy plays with cars and robots and the girl plays with dolls and tea sets.  

Is that really progress if one trope has been shelved and yet a reliance remains on traditional/stereotypical gender roles?      

There is progress, but it is mixed. In another positive example, activities such as coding and gaming, which were considered largely to be something that boys enjoyed are more and more being portrayed in ads with girls from various social and economic backgrounds who are learning, enjoying, and engaging with coding and gaming.  

Advertisers are encouraged to consider these layers of representation and depict the wide range of consumers in their advertisements.  

Not only does it increase the chances of diverse representation, such depictions also signal to potential consumers that advertised products can be used and enjoyed broadly across their demographic.  

CARU applauds advertisers who are turning out ads that continue to demonstrate new layers of representation and belonging. At the same time, challenges remain. Areas for improvement include individual appearance, the family dynamic, relatability, and representation of people in the disability community. Very rarely are neurodivergent and physically disabled people seen in advertisements, and if so, they are shown in the background and not in prominent roles as active consumers.  

The conversation must continue. Addressing all layers of representation in advertisements is not simple, but we urge the advertising community to continue to demonstrate progress. It all starts with this fundamental consideration: in all steps for the development of an advertisement, attention must be paid to the express vs. implicit ways that representation is demonstrated. BBB National Programs and its advertising self-regulatory programs are committed to being a part of that progress. 

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