The issue of advertising to children is a controversial subject as children are vulnerable and susceptible to the images that are on television and that are being advertised to them. Advertising already has a bad rap for being manipulative, coercive and generally perceived as untruthful when it comes to trying to entice consumers or persuade them to think a certain way.
As television and new ways of communication and receiving information emerged, the need to target children (meaning their parents) began to shift. Although children are not consumers, advertising was influential to get children interested in a product enough to persuade their parents to purchase it for them. Children being targeted by advertisers also came with a cultural shift as children became committed viewers of the television that babysat them while their parents worked long hours. In addition, eating in front of the television presented more opportunity for children to learn from ads. Children between the ages of 2 and 11 years old consume more than 200 hours of television ads yearly and television presents the chance to observe and learn social behaviors and gender roles.
Since the 1970s, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission have worked together to protect children from the effects of advertising. In 1990, Congress passed the Children’s Television Act that required that the FCC must establish standards that broadcasters must follow to limit advertising to children and that there must be 10.5 minutes or less of commercial time aired during children’s programs on weekends and 12 minutes or less during weekdays, both amounts of time per hour (Ramsey, 2006, p. 363). Proponents of this insisted that this is done to increase the amount of “beneficial programming” targeted towards children. It is also argued that children often are watching television unsupervised, which goes back to the television being babysitter, and often cannot differentiate between programming and commercials. Because of this, children face overexposure to television and cannot be expected to react aversively to that programming. Protecting children from unfair and deceptive marketing and advertising practices, as the Federal Trade Commission is tasked with, is a complex as it requires knowledge and perspective of a very special audience. What an adult would understand or deceptive or tricky is not as obvious to a child without broad life and learning experience. The Commission, thankfully, has been successful in these practices that protect children from deceptive advertising. From the depiction of unrealistic expectations and actions of toys to false and unsubstantiated health claims from food have been shot down by the Commission for being so deceptive. The Commission has continually challenged ads that have deceived and that even encourage potentially harmful and dangerous activity for kids, like cooking alone or providing personal information online. Another regulatory body, the Children’s Advertising Review Unit, established in 1974 as a program to ensure “responsible advertising,” reviews advertisements directed at children and acts in a similar way to the Federal Trade Commission.
On the contrary, it would be unrealistic to say that regulating advertising targeted toward children is an easy feat. While many criticize advertising (and at times, rightfully so), those who look at advertising in a positive light posit that it can be a useful tool for teaching children how to analyze things and concepts critically. Organizations like Media Smart, that Bruce Watson for The Guardian wrote of, “helps kids better understand what advertising is, how advertising works, what its intentions are, and how to be critical of it” (Watson, 2014). Trying to shield children from advertising is not realistic, nor is it a pragmatic approach. However, research has shown that children do not have that analytical capacity until the age of 12. Even with that fact, children learn and develop in stages and must think critically along the way.
Personally, I agree with the use of advertising teaching children to think critically. While television consumption and the inevitability of advertising is sure to affect them, it is up to both organizations like the Federal Trade Commission and Media Smart as well as parents and caregivers to aid children in that development of thinking skills. Children are smarter than many consider them to be and many believe that they must do the thinking for them, removing from children their own agency. As television programs continue to arise, there is space to rethink the extensive and intense regulation of advertising. Currently, we are in a different time than the 1970s. It has been recommended that the government and its regulatory agencies focus more on content quality than content quantity in limiting how many advertisements are geared toward children during television programming. Speech can be regulated easier than the amount of content especially in a time where digital and media communications are continually changing. Doing this by regulating content and holding advertisers accountable for reducing the amount of deceptive or misleading information would perform better than eliminating the amount of advertisements shown to them. Most advertising geared towards children is to only associate the product with having fun and materialism, which gets them to want the product, but there is a lack of product information. Instead of trying to unrealistically safeguard children from the inevitability, changing the content of advertising allows for them to learn product information and decide if that product is what they want. While this could mean profit loss for a brand or company, the interests of children are always placed higher than profit and rightfully so.
- Ramsey, W. A. (2006). Rethinking regulation of advertising aimed at children. Fed. Comm. LJ, 58, 361.
- Watson, B. (2014, February 24). The tricky business of advertising to children. Retrieved April 24, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/advertising-to-children-tricky-business-subway