Last week, my high school freshman told me his world history teacher wasted the first two weeks of school talking about something they’ll never be tested on; she taught them about bias.

After I got over being discouraged that my son, along with most public school kids in our country, has been trained to think that the purpose of education is for kids to memorize facts and spit them back out for tests, I explained to him why it was a good thing that his history teacher wants students to understand bias. Knowing who provides information and what their motives are is essential when understanding history.

It’s also important when understanding advertising. NBC News is questioning whether kids are more likely to eat junk food if a star athlete endorses it. Duh. The answer to that question is obvious. Of course many kids are likely to eat it, or at least want it. If using star athletes (or rock stars or movie stars) to sell products didn’t work, companies would have stopped paying stars millions of dollars to endorse junk food, sneakers and cars years ago.

The question shouldn’t be, “Do star endorsements influence kids?” It should be, “What can parents do about it?” Of course, they can try to get the companies to stop using celebrities, sports stars and kid-friendly mascots like Ronald McDonald, but I think it’s more effective to do what my son’s history teacher did. Educate kids about bias.

The NBC News piece uses Denver Broncos Quarterback Peyton Manning’s endorsement of Papa Johns as an example of a star athlete who endorses junk food. It’s a good example of bias when it comes to product endorsement because not only does Manning get paid to endorse the pizza chain, he owns 21 Papa John’s stores in Colorado.

Here are some questions to ask kids to help lead them to see that Manning’s opinion about Papa John’s may be influenced by his bias and therefore not an opinion kids should easily allow to influence them.

  • Do you think Manning really likes Papa John’s pizza?
  • How much money do you think he gets paid for saying he likes this pizza?
  • What benefits does Manning, who owns several Papa John’s stores, get from endorsing the pizza chain?
  • Could Manning, who is a very physically fit athlete, exist on a steady diet of food like Papa John’s pizza and other junk food while staying in top physical shape?
  • What are Manning’s motives and biases for endorsing Papa Johns?
  • Would you tell someone you liked a product if the company that made it was going to pay you a million dollars?
Questions like these are designed to get kids thinking about how advertising is meant to persuade for profit, and profit can cause someone to be biased.

I am constantly encouraging my boys to take a look at the sources they use for information, and we talk about reliable sources frequently. Bias can affect a source’s reliability, and being able to detect bias is an important skill for kids to have — even if they’re not going to have to spit it back out on a test.

What other questions could you add to this list to get this point across to kids?

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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Do star athletes' endorsements influence kids?
Here’s a great family dinner conversation topic: Can star athletes' opinions about products reliable when they’re getting paid millions?