Holding children's welfare as a golden cane with which to flog the advertising industry, they seek to place the blame for child obesity and other social concerns in the lap of business. They flaunt statistics about the number of hours children watch television, and the expansion of advertising into schools and homes via computer. They ignore statistics that show the highest correlation to childhood obesity is parental obesity. From these figures and anecdotes, child ad crusaders leap to the unsubstantiated and troubling conclusion that all ads allegedly targeted to the very young should be killed.
In a February 2004 report, the American Psychological Association linked children's misperceptions about proper nutritional habits to television viewing, and blamed ads for the development of positive attitudes toward tobacco and alcohol. Concluding that young children have a limited ability to recognize and defend against commercial persuasion, the APA believes advertising "directed to ... children below the age of roughly 7-8 years should be considered unfair." The APA suggests a return of jurisdiction to the Federal Trade Commission to regulate children's advertising under the unfairness standard-the standard under which the FTC tried to ban children's advertising in the late `70s, before being pulled back by Congress.
In the same week, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation issued a report concluding that food advertising is a significant contributor to obesity in children. The Kaiser study suggests policy considerations such as banning children's food advertising altogether, or prohibiting product placement. Congressional hearings to address the issue have been scheduled. And while on the campaign trail, Senator Joseph Lieberman called for a FTC investigation into the practices of companies marketing unhealthy foods to children.
some good news
Add to the debate a recent court ruling. In Mainstream vs. FTC, a case involving a challenge to the national do-not-call registry, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals found that restricting commercial speech on the basis of anecdotal evidence was an appropriate legislative initiative. The APA study will likely be seen as being more than just anecdotal evidence.
In all this hysteria there's some good news for marketers in that studies show children's purchase requests are influenced by ads, characters and celebrities used to sell products and in-store promotions-their work works. Of course the child-ad foes would punish this success.
Never mind the obvious solution-that parents, as household decision makers, are capable of monitoring the amount and types of TV programming their children watch, which products are purchased, how often fast food should be consumed, and whether their tot stands to benefit from the latest toy trend.
Never mind that no evidence has been presented that children over the age of 8 represent a generation of automatons conditioned by years of unfair advertising during their formative years. Ask any teenager today what he or she thinks of advertising and you'll hear a skeptical response and a consumer entirely attuned to the purposes behind these messages. Whatever the harm done during those first eight years the APA seems so concerned about, it does not appear to be lasting. Perhaps that's because there wasn't any harm.
Never mind the possibility that parents may appreciate that their children have greater programming choices-options that would shrink fast if the advertising that supports them were to go away.
The APA acknowledges that banning ads to 8-and-unders would limit marketers to focusing on older children, but blithely points to other countries that have taken this approach, including Australia, Canada, the U.K. and Sweden. Never mind that the statistics in Quebec and Sweden show that bans had no effect on the problems sought to be corrected.
As importantly, do we isolate young children from marketing, and then expect them to become savvy consumers the moment they are deemed mature enough to be exposed to commercial content?
Whether it's candy or fries, there's no doubt too much of a good thing can lead to harm. But limiting free speech won't guarantee a reduction in overindulgence. It will ensure more limited competition, fewer consumer options, and invariably, inferior goods and services.
Clearly, the solution is self-regulation, provided it works. And there's every reason to believe it does. The Children's Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus adjudicated more than 140 cases last year, convincing advertisers to modify content more than 130 times. When one decided to ignore CARU, the FTC fined the advertiser $400,000. Working in tandem, self-regulation with regulatory muscle works.
Advertisers should not run from their success, nor should they cede ground to those who would punish them for being effective. Advertisers must diligently defend their right to communicate with American families through the universe of media options the industry helps finance. And they should trust parents to draw sensible lines for their kids.