Kids ads: To regulate or not?

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We know how difficult it is today to meet the needs of our children and families when it comes to healthcare and education. But there is perhaps no greater challenge to parents than the challenge of making sure our children grow up with the right values.

The job is made much more difficult by the constant barrage of materialistic marketing and advertising targeted at our children. For years, we fought to stop the marketing of tobacco to children. And Joe Camel is history. Today, we find violent films and videogames are being marketed to kids supposedly too young to see them.

But there is a central question here: Why are our kids the target of so much advertising in the first place? And at what age is it fair to advertise to them at all? And should they be subjected to advertising all day long -- even in our schools? We have to draw some lines and say enough is enough.

Companies are spending nearly $7 billion a year marketing to kids under 12. And these companies target our children's vulnerabilities, hiring psychologists and even anthropologists to find them. One advertiser put it this way: "Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you are a loser . . . kids are very sensitive to that." So they are telling our kids, buy the product and join the club.

I believe we as a society, as parents, business leaders, government officials and citizens, must do more to turn the tide on this trend, to shield our children from the relentless bombardment of advertising on TV, the Internet and in our schools.

UNIVERSAL RATING SYSTEM

We have made progress. V-chips will now be installed in TV sets across the country. Now we must establish an easy-to-use universal rating system covering all forms of media -- TV, movies, music and the Internet -- so parents can monitor what their children are seeing and shield them from objectionable programming.

Not content to reach our kids at home, advertisers are increasingly working their way into schools themselves.

The advertising blitz is working. Economists estimate children between age 4 and 12 now account for [billions of dollars] worth of spending every year, both directly and indirectly through their parents.

Too often the advertising is reaching the youngest among us. Nielsen Net Ratings reported kids 2 to 11 clicked on Internet banner ads more than any other age group. One researcher found children will start asking for brand names at 24 months. At 6 months, the same time children begin to say their first words, babies are also beginning to recognize corporate logos and mascots.

`FROM CRADLE TO GRAVE'

This is not by happenstance. This is through a planned campaign to sell kids on brands early. "From cradle to grave" is how one major toy company described its advertising efforts.

I don't know any parent who has escaped a child's ceaseless campaign for a brand name pair of shoes or a doll or an action figure. Marketers actually have a name for this sort of behavior -- it's called the "nag and whine." They design the ads so the kids will nag the parents, and they will use marketing schemes like "collect all 51" to ensure that they do it again, and again and again.

Too many companies see our children, as one columnist put it, as "little cash cows."

The commercialization of our children has simply gone too far. Children must be children. Not cash cows for any company that can afford to reach them.

`TIME TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY'

We cannot afford to raise a generation of children that measures its own value by the insignia on their clothes -- not by the compassion in their hearts or the knowledge in their minds.

It's time for all of us to act -- and to take responsibility.

Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission released a report that found 80% of movies, half of videogames, and one-quarter of all CDs are being marketed intentionally to children prohibited from buying them. I joined the president in calling upon all media companies to put a stop to this unscrupulous practice.

Twenty-two years ago, the FTC recognized the problem of advertising to children and concluded that preschool children couldn't distinguish fact from fiction in advertising, and didn't understand the basic idea that these products cost money. No child that young should be targeted with advertising, they concluded.

Congress acted by taking away [the FTC's] authority to make rules about what's right for our kids. Only in 1994 did the administration succeed in restoring the limited authority that has allowed [FTC] to conduct the tobacco and violence studies and to go after limited cases of abuse.

But we can do more.

First, no advertising should be targeted to preschoolers. Let's all agree no ads should be targeted to kids before education even starts. I call upon industry to withdraw all such advertising. And I'll introduce legislation to have the FTC report on the extent of advertising to young children. This legislation will provide the FTC with full authority to limit such advertising so that we can keep our children safe from manipulative messages.

Second, the FTC authority to set broader limits on advertising that is harmful to older children based upon public policy considerations should be restored. Right now they can go after the most egregious cases on a case by case basis, but they can't regulate ads on a general basis that cause substantial injury .

Third, let's make our elementary schools off limits to advertisers beyond routine vending machines. The 3 R's shouldn't include retailing.

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