Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

The Impetus for (and Limited Power of) Business Self-Regulation: The Example of Advergames

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

The Impetus for (and Limited Power of) Business Self-Regulation: The Example of Advergames

Article excerpt

When people complain, government agencies often respond. When regulations are threatened, businesses often offer reassurances that the problems can be handled with a self-regulation code. However, past analyses of the power of self-regulation find that while companies' voluntary adherence to self-defined guidelines may effect some change in the activities of some companies, the inherent limitations of self-regulation in the United States may restrict its ability to actually halt or control the undesired practices of others. The recent response by major food manufacturers and marketers to criticism of online games is all example of this mix.


Parents and child advocates find threats to children lurking in almost any medium: crazed murderers and bloody severed heads in comic books, a "wardrobe malfunction" during a widely viewed Super Bowl broadcast, television advertising indistinguishable from entertainment, leprechauns collecting candy marshmallows in online games. In the interest of protecting children, they call on government to regulate the practices deemed offensive. The perceived offenders often respond with promises that the problems can be effectively addressed by self-regulation. The proponents of self-regulation argue that free market forces and industry social responsibility are superior to government regulation in addressing a number of issues. Conversely, children's advocates are skeptical about industry's ability to change its practices. In this article, self-regulation of media messages delivered to children is examined, identifying the characteristics that distinguish it from government regulation and addressing the underlying question: Can self-regulation effectively provide consumer protection, and specifically is it sufficient in addressing concerns regarding children and their exposure to food marketing, particularly marketing messages delivered through online games?

Self-regulation has been invoked to address concerns about a variety of perceived dangers that threaten to undermine parental authority or cause negative outcomes in children's socialization, health or education. In the 1950s, the contribution of comic books to juvenile delinquency drew the nation's attention. Up to and throughout the 1990s, violence and sexual depictions on television were at the center of controversy. Repeatedly, advertising targeted to children has been criticized for a variety of reasons, including dental health risks and unfair or deceptive practices, in each of the aforementioned cases, vulnerable businesses that were under attack banded together to proffer voluntary limits to objectionable behavior as an alternative to potentially more restrictive

government regulation, emphasizing their ability and willingness to tie their own hands.

Most recently, and again in response to calls for government intervention, a public concern about childhood obesity and the contribution of advertising to the childhood obesity epidemic has spurred many in the US food industry to adopt self-regulatory guidelines. The Institutes of Medicine has characterized food marketing to children as "out of balance with healthful diets and contribut[ing] to an environment that puts their health at risk" (Institute of Medicine of the National Academies 2006, p.10); organizations such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest called for bans on online food marketing to children as early as 2003 (Teinowitz 2003); parents, pediatricians, psychologists and child advocates have criticized advergames and Internet marketing of foods high in sugar, salt and/or fat (Hellmich 2006).

Proponents of industry self-regulation believe that it can be effective in identifying problems while efficiently and flexibly resolving them. Self-regulation of advertising is claimed to be more successful than government regulation by its encouragement of voluntary adherence to the spirit, rather than simply the letter, of the law. …

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