Purpose – To question the models of childhood implied within contemporary UK debate about advertising to children. The paper identifies a role for qualitative market research in establishing a more fully-articulated account of childhood, with implications for both policy makers and marketers. Design/methodology/approach – A brief literature review of contemporary sociological perspectives on childhood informs an account of controversy in the UK about the legitimacy of advertising to children. Adult versions of childhood from this debate are contrasted with children's own accounts of their experience of advertising, drawing on a pilot study using informal qualitative methods. Findings – Illuminates the assumptions about childhood which divide industry advocates from their critics, and suggests that qualitative understanding of children's experience of advertising should have a greater role in complementing the predominantly positivist research on which the debate draws. Research limitations/implications – Limited to recent UK discourse on children and advertising (which may restrict its extendability to non-European cultures), and draws on a very small pilot study. This does, however, point the way to future research using informal methods. Practical implications – Intended to enrich understanding of debate and policy on advertising and children, and to encourage the informed use of qualitative research in this area. Originality/value – This paper fills a gap in the predominantly empirical or polemical literature in this area by setting competing arguments in an ontological framework.