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Children don’t mind advertisements in YouTube videos, as long as the videos are fun to watch and the brand fits the YouTuber. This is the main outcome of research carried out by communication scientist Eva van Reijmersdal of the University of Amsterdam. Together with Margot van der Goot (UvA) and a Radboud University colleague, she interviewed 38 children aged between 10 and 16 about advertisements in YouTube videos. The project was commissioned by the Dutch Media Authority.

At the instigation of 20 well-known YouTubers, the ‘Social Code: YouTube’ guideline was introduced in 2017 to increase awareness among young people of advertisements in videos. This followed a Dutch Media Authority investigation, which revealed that the vast majority of videos made by well-known YouTubers contained advertisements. A number of YouTubers now indicate at the beginning of their videos whether they feature ‘paid promotions’ or ‘free products/services’, meaning advertisements. From the government’s point of view, this would seem to settle the matter – but to what extent is the Code’s target group aware of its existence?

What were the most striking outcomes of your research?

‘The fact that children don’t mind advertisements in YouTube videos, as long as the videos are fun to watch, the brand fits the YouTuber and he or she doesn’t publish such videos too often. We also found that many children were unaware of the Social Code.’

Who was included in your study?

‘We took into account geographical distribution, and included children from the Amsterdam, Den Bosch and Amersfoort areas. We also strove for an equal balance between boys and girls, educational levels and ethnic backgrounds.’

Why did you interview children aged between 10 and 16 and not, for example, younger children who are also bound to follow certain YouTubers?

‘The average child becomes aware of advertising, and hence the YouTubers’ business model, from the age of 10. This awareness is not yet present among younger children.’

Why are advertisements referred to as ‘paid promotions’ in the Social Code: YouTube? Doesn’t this mislead young people?

‘This has to do with the platform that YouTubers have and their image. The YouTubers who adhere to the Code do so on a voluntary basis. One the one hand, this group is aware that it can be misleading to make no mention of advertisements. On the other hand, it wants to maintain its independence and avoid gaining a reputation for greed or as spokespeople for certain brands – which some YouTubers already experience. For this reason, the term “advertising” was avoided in favour of “paid promotion”.’

Which factors affect advertising savvy?

‘Our research has shown that this is mainly determined by age and educational level. Roughly speaking, children under the age of 12 and those with lower educational levels are less savvy when it comes to advertising than their older or more highly educated counterparts.’

‘This latter group is quite capable of recognising when a YouTuber is marketing something. They understand that YouTubers have to earn money to make a living as well as to create fun non-sponsored videos. It also transpired from our interviews that some children see right through the mechanics of influencer marketing: “Enzo Knol mainly attracts really young children who really look up to him, so they want to drink whatever he’s drinking.” Most older or more highly educated children are “consciously savvy”. They also understand the importance of disclaimers, because it makes things fairer – not only for themselves, but also for other groups of viewers who are less savvy when it comes to advertising.’

‘Children under the age of 12 and those with lower educational levels are notably less advertising savvy. They find it hard to spot whether a YouTube video has been sponsored and have little awareness of influencer marketing and the earning model of YouTubers. As a result, they lack an opinion on advertisements in YouTube videos and believe they are not influenced by them. Although they do believe they are aware of advertisements in videos, the interviews demonstrated that they were the ones incapable of recognising sponsoring. These children appear to be at the level referred to in the model as “unconscious incompetence”. They don’t realise that they are less savvy about advertising and are influenced by sponsored videos, so they don’t see the need for disclaimers.’

Did your research yield any specific points of reference for future policies?

‘Yes. Young people are poor at reading disclaimers. Disclaimers are more likely to be appreciated when spoken. Also, videos are rarely viewed all the way through, so disclaimers should be played at the start rather than the end to have the greatest effect.’

Read the full report

dr. E.A. (Eva) van Reijmersdal

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

CW : Persuasive Communication

dr. M.J. (Margot) van der Goot

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

CW : Persuasive Communication