|The APA report is critical of the $12 billion in advertising targeted at the U.S. youth market.
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The American Psychological Association on Monday faulted marketers for taking advantage of an ever-fragmenting media landscape of cable channels and Web sites to target children and "exploit" them for profit. The report tries to show that young children do not understand commercial messages the same way older children and adults do.
The Washington-based APA is a scientific and professional organization that represents psychology professionals in the U.S. It claims more than 150,000 members.
Dick O'Brien, executive vice president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, characterized the report as "wrongful arrogance" by social scientists.
According to the report, "Advertisers spend more than $12 billion per year to target the youth market because of its strong contribution to the consumer economy. According to one estimate, children age 14 years old and under make $24 billion in direct purchases and influence $190 billion in family purchases, underscoring the high stakes involved."
Based on the results of an 18-month study, the organization said marketing activities focused on America's young has reached "unprecedented" levels. It called for restrictions on advertising in TV programming that appeals primarily to children under 8 and a total ban on advertising in programming aimed at "very young children" in this group.
Wants government curbs
The psychologists, who appear to see the age 8 as a demarcation line of sorts, also suggested that all forms of marketing in schools where such students are present be restricted. "Given that young children inherently lack the cognitive capability to effectively recognize and defend against television commercial persuasion, we recommend that policymakers pursue efforts to constrain advertising specifically targeted directly to this particular age group," said the report.
Advertising and marketing trade groups have traditionally reacted to such criticism by noting that parents of younger children -- not the children -- make purchase decisions and they continued on that theme.
"The child is not going to get in his car and go to the quick service restaurant or do the shopping," said Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers. "We don't think it is wrong for the parents to say no."
Dale Kunkel, a professor of communications at the University of California in Santa Barbara, Calif., who headed the task force's scientific panel, however, said that what has changed is the amount of advertising aimed at children.
$12 billion targets youth market
"That argument is now an anachronism when you now have $12 billion invested in targeting the youth market," he said. "We have advertising campaigns targeting younger and younger ages. It's not reasonable to expect parents to defend their kids from the strength of Madison Avenue's barrage."
Mr. O'Brien of the 4As said, "[Protecting kids] is what parents do. They guide their children and teach. To say that it is just too difficult for parents to navigate is naive, unrealistic and misguided."
The report in particular found that the Internet is a particularly effective -- and hence harmful -- means of sending advertising messages to children. Web sites aimed at children, according to the report, blur -- if not ignore -- the boundaries between "commercial and noncommercial content." What seems like an innocuous game on a Web site (one most likely created and maintained by a marketer) is often an elaborate sales pitch targeting children.
Primary culprit: TV
But the document painted TV as the primary culprit because it remains the medium of choice for most advertisers. Many popular cartoon characters for years have been licensed to marketers, who play up the association in ads for cereals or toys that run at any time of day, not just mornings and after school, thanks to the explosion of all-children's programming on cable TV.