While children have always been targets of ads for products such as toys, dolls and games, advertising to children became a controversial topic only in the early 1970s. Founded in 1968, the U.S. consumer group Action for Children's Television advanced the idea that advertising to children was inherently "unfair."
Although the debate has cooled somewhat, it has not been resolved, and the size of the children's market has grown worldwide as marketers have become more attuned to the significance of youthful audiences. Children in the U.S., for example, spend an estimated $24 billion on direct purchases and influence another $188 billion in spending by their families. Spending on TV advertising directed at children amounts to more than $1 billion yearly in the U.S. alone.
Two major theories have been advanced to explain the effects of the communications process on children. The theory of cognitive development proposed four main stages based on age in which youngsters exhibit differences in cognitive abilities. For example, preschoolers are believed to be less able than older children to distinguish commercials from programming, to understand the selling intent of commercials or to recognize deception and bias in advertising. Information processing theory focused on how children's abilities develop in the acquisition, encoding, organization and retrieval of information. This theory also provided an explanation of children's abilities to use information at various ages.
Differences in the behavior of boys and girls are also important in toy marketing. Considerable time and money have been invested in efforts to interest girls in traditionally male toys and games and, to a lesser extent, to get boys interested in traditionally female products and programs. Genetics and socialization are frequently cited as prime influencers of the toys children prefer.
Some aspects of children's advertising have not changed much from the 1950s. The content is much the same, as is the use of the "fun" appeal. Also, commercials aimed at children today do not show an increase or decrease in the use of controversial selling techniques.
In the 1960s, advertisers began to develop targeted marketing, with one result being that TV spots became shorter. That freed up more airtime, resulting in a greater density of advertising on children's shows. (Toys, cereals, candy and snacks account for more than three-quarters of all ads shown on the Saturday morning schedules of the major U.S. TV networks.)
Impact of ads on the young
The potential of children's advertising to shape society is a central concern of social theorists and critics of advertising. A 1978 report by the Federal Trade Commission expressed alarm over the effects of advertising on children under the age of 8-that is, those who are unable to perceive that the purpose of TV advertising is to sell. The report expressed particular concern for the youngest children: "It appears that a large proportion of preschoolers think that the persons or animated figures on TV are addressing them personally and that the animated figures are real and in some sense appropriate for emulation."
Although regulatory interest in the issue subsided during the 1980s, many critics continued to voice concern over the effects on young children. While the influence of TV was the primary concern, the persuasive effects of other media were also recognized. Some municipalities, for example, restricted billboard advertising of alcohol and tobacco products in close proximity to schools.
Concern also mounted over the wide diffusion of Whittle Communications' Channel One. In 1990, Whittle introduced the program, which offered a daily 10-minute newscast with two minutes of advertising aimed at middle- and high-school students. In exchange for delivering the program to students, the schools received satellite dishes, TV sets and other telecommunications equipment. More than 12,000 U.S. middle and high schools showed Channel One to some 8 million students. Critics charged that the exchange took unfair advantage of children as a captive audience in the classroom.
Channel M was created during 1994 as an advertising and promotional network to target children and teens in videogame arcades at shopping malls. Channel M showed two-hour programs that included top music videos, highlights from professional sports, movie trailers and bloopers. Each commercial ran 330 times a month in each location, reaching more than 2 million children. Advertisers used the network's customized promotions for point-of-purchase displays, contests and sweepstakes, cross-promotions, product samples and couponing.
Other initiatives targeted to children-including kids' clubs, product placement in child-oriented movies and ads on schoolbook covers-have also come under fire from consumer groups.
Marketers argue that advertising to children is carefully monitored by self-regulation. In 1974, the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus established the Children's Advertising Review Unit to help marketers deal with advertising in a manner sensitive to children's needs. CARU reviews and evaluates advertising directed at children younger than 12.
CARU uses five basic principles regarding advertising directed to children: Advertisers should take into account the level of knowledge, sophistication and maturity of the audience to which their messages are primarily directed; realizing that children are imaginative and that make-believe play constitutes an important part of the growing-up process, advertisers should exercise care not to exploit the imaginative nature of children; recognizing that advertising may play an important part in educating a child, advertisers should communicate their information in a truthful and accurate manner, with full recognition that a child may learn practices from advertising that can affect his or her health and well-being; advertisers should capitalize on the potential of marketing to influence social behavior by developing advertising that, wherever possible, addresses social standards generally regarded as positive and beneficial, such as friendship, kindness, honesty, justice, generosity and respect for others; and although many influences affect a child's personal and social development, the prime responsibility for providing guidance to children remains with parents and advertisers should contribute to this parent-child relationship in a constructive manner.
Throughout the world there are established traditions for treating children as a special audience. Quotas on the number of spots in children's TV programming and other such restrictions are common, and most countries have laws that protect children from exploitation by advertisers. The European Union, for example, enacted a "TV Without Frontiers" directive. Australia has set standards for children's TV, and in Great Britain the Independent Broadcasting Authority has a similar code. A 1993 code adopted in Canada gives details for self-regulation by the local advertising industry.
In the U.S., Congress passed the Children's TV Act in 1990 and in 1996 the Federal Communications Commission used the act to set standards for the broadcasting industry. The law restored a 10.5 minute-per-hour ceiling for commercials in children's weekend TV programming and a 12-minute-per-hour limit in weekday programs that had been used by the federal agency earlier. The act also restored rules requiring that commercial breaks be clearly distinguished from programming and rules barring selling by program hosts, tie-ins and other practices that involve the use of program characters to promote products.