Why the kids marketing fuss? Here's why parents are angry

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Not only does Hillary Clinton have my vote in her campaign for the U.S. Senate, she now wins my support in her campaign to curtail advertising to kids -- even, to some degree, for her call for Federal Trade Commission intervention.

For this, you can thank Rupert Murdoch.

One day after it was released by Murdoch's Twentieth Century Fox, I took my kids to see "Digimon: The Movie," itself little more than a long-form toy commercial. If you're not familiar with Digimon, it's an unimaginative, wholesale ripoff of the already quality-starved Pokemon franchise.

When the lights went down, the first thing on the screen was a highly suggestive bedroom scene featuring two adults. What followed was a promotion for the new TV series "The Street" that, in addition to more bedroom scenes, included several shots of gyrating strippers. Just the family entertainment I was seeking when I brought my 8-, 5- and 3-year-olds to the theater.

This came mere days after the heads of the leading studios, including Twentieth Century Fox Film Chairman Jim Gianopulos, showed up in D.C. to unveil initiatives to limit the marketing of R-rated films to minors. Apparently the marketing of R-rated TV series to preschoolers is still acceptable.

The promo for "The Street" was obviously a planned placement. Both "Digimon" and "The Street," from Fox Broadcasting, are products of Murdoch's media empire. Some marketing genius clearly saw the Digimon movie as a great platform for promoting the Fox TV network's new series to captive parents in the audience.

This publication's editors -- myself included -- almost always side with the advertising industry in preferring self-regulation to government intervention. But self-regulation is a privilege earned with responsible behavior and voluntary restraint. In the marketing of entertainment products to children, marketers have shown little restraint. If they continue to act irresponsibly, they will have invited the regulation they so desperately want to avoid.

I understand and generally support the ad industry's First Amendment and "slippery slope" arguments. But the industry can't blindly throw them up as shields to protect even unscrupulous practices. If the FTC hadn't embarrassed the studios with its report on how Hollywood markets films its own industry code flags for violent content, the studios wouldn't be taking steps to change their practices. They'd still be combing databases for names of children to invite to focus groups for "Scream 36."

"The commercialization of our children has simply gone too far," Hillary Clinton said in a recent speech. She called on the industry to take voluntary action, such as withdrawing all ads targeted to preschoolers. But she also said that if elected she will "introduce legislation to have the FTC report on the extent of advertising to young children . . . [and] provide the FTC with full authority to limit such advertising." Her legislation would also give the commission power to "set broader limits on advertising that is harmful to children."

The ad industry responded, of course, by calling Mrs. Clinton's proposal "so broad that it is unconstitutional," in the words of Dan Jaffe of the Association of National Advertisers. For instance, he noted, "what is [the definition of] harmful?"

The ANA has no choice but to mount the most vigorous possible defense for industry self-regulation, and it's right to do that. There are places where I would part ways with Mrs. Clinton. It's unrealistic to ask that all ads aimed at preschoolers be banned. And while an FTC report on the extent of advertising to young children could be useful, giving the commission broad powers to decide what is and isn't harmful could be dangerous.

But, again, self-regulation requires responsibility. Studios must move quickly and firmly to change their current marketing practices or face the consequences.

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