Not kid stuff

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It's election season, and politicians are out moralizing (and out-moralizing each other) about what's being marketed to kids. Some, now including U.S. Senate hopeful Hillary Clinton, want more legislation and regulation. That's not the best answer given First Amendment concerns. The better solution is self-regulation -- but only if it's self-policing that marketers themselves respect and comply with.

The Federal Trade Commission embarrassed the marketing community with its report on how producers of violence-themed movies, video games and records have casually promoted them to younger teens (and even used sub-teens as research targets) -- while at the same time advising parents through their industries' voluntary ratings program that the products may not be appropriate for such kids. It was a blow to the business executives and trade association leaders who constantly struggle to convince skeptical politicians and hostile consumerists that self-regulation is a real option to more laws and regulations.

How much of a setback the FTC report will be for ad industry credibility is not clear. But the public has been primed, first by revelations about youth-oriented tobacco marketing and now by these "inside Hollywood" tales, to question the ethics of marketers when it comes to selling to young people. With parents wondering what else may be going on, Mrs. Clinton last month vowed to try to reignite a debate in Congress on whether all forms marketing to very young kids is an "unfair" business practice that ought to be banned (see Forum, P. 58).

Should that attack materialize, marketers have a job ahead to reestablish the credibility of self-regulation. Some film marketers and media companies are trying to respond. What's needed is quick and firm action to show business means business when it come to drafting -- and honoring -- self-regulatory restrictions that recognize the special issues of selling to kids and young teens. Anything short of that is not enough.

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