According to a new coalition of watchdog groups, at least part of the problem is that TV has overwhelmed children with advertisements for high-fat, high-calorie foods. And, at least according to the coalition, it's high time the government did something about it.
"Parents need help from policymakers to protect children from this unprecedented and unethical assault," said the group in a recent letter to the major presidential campaigns.
Among the remedies the unnamed coalition is seeking is a ban on ads for products harmful to children, perhaps to include junk food and violent toys.
In addition, the coalition wants the government to launch a series of studies on the impact marketing has on the nation's youth.
AN UNNAMED COALITION
"Children pay for marketing," said the coalition in its letter, which was signed by representatives of more than 50 groups, including Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television; Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education; and George Gerbner, dean emeritus at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Southern California. "They pay with their safety, their health, their well-being and their family relationships. They deserve a government committed to protecting them from exploitation."
At press time, the National Association of Broadcasters had no comment; representatives for the GOP presidential candidate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, and the Democratic candidate, Vice President Al Gore, had not returned telephone calls.
But Susan Linn, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School who organized the letter-writing effort, said concern has grown as the volume of children's advertising and marketing has exploded during the past several years.
She also said there's evidence advertising harms children physically by encouraging unhealthy habits that may lead to obesity and eating disorders.
But in addition, she charged, advertising undermines democratic values.
"Corporations want brand loyalty, impulse buying and they want people to buy out of emotion, and that's antithetical to democracy," Ms. Linn said. "A healthy democracy depends on a population that thinks."
The coalition's letter also alleges that by the time children graduate from high school, they have seen 360,000 TV commercials. In addition, the letter said corporations spend more than $12 billion a year marketing to children, sometimes relying on advice from child psychologists to "manipulate" the more than $500 billion worth of purchases that children influence annually.
Dan Jaffe, exec VP of the Association of National Advertisers, said, "The advertising industry already provides exceptional levels of protection for children through industry self-regulation. If ads are not false or deceptive, parents should decide about product choice, rather than [impose] government censorship."
Mr. Halonen is Washington bureau chief with Electronic Media.