"Commercials are designed to sell you something, so of course they are going to make their product look as fun and as exciting as possible," says Scheibe. "But parents shouldn't be afraid to have a conversation with their kids about the reality behind the ads. Is it really as big as it looks on TV? When you take the toy out of the box on Christmas morning, will it really do all the things they show you in the commercial, or are some needed accessories 'sold separately,' as they say in the fine print?"
Scheibe is a professor of psychology and director of the Project Look Sharp media literacy program at Ithaca College. She says her research shows that children can be taught to understand that what they see on TV is not always the reality, and that there is a difference between programs and commercials.
"It isn't about teaching kids that advertisers are bad or mean or cruel, or that we shouldn't buy their products. It's about teaching them that commercials are intended to get you to buy something. And because of that, they might not show or tell you everything; they might be using a few camera tricks to make the toy look better than it really is."
Armed with that knowledge, parents can discuss with their children if the toy is still desirable - whether it comes from the parents or Santa. Better to talk about it up front, Scheibe says, than to have your child disillusioned on Christmas morning.
A developmental psychologist, Scheibe studies television content and its effects on children. She has been a consultant to the Children's Television Workshop and was a founding board member of the National Association for Media Literacy Education.
Project Look Sharp is an Ithaca College program that promotes and supports the integration of media literacy into school curricula at all grade levels and in all instructional areas.