IF there's a quiet corner of childhood still untouched by the
marketing industry, it is not apparent to the naked eye.
Over the last decade, more advertising on television targeted
kids, and ads penetrated to every nook and cranny of childhood
experience - even to the school classroom, via the Whittle
Corporation's "Channel One," a news program for schools that
includes commercials. Now that lessons are interrupted by messages
for Nike shoes and M&M candies, there is a growing feeling that
things have gotten out of hand.
"We are raising children in an era of marketing, parented by
parents raised in an era of marketing," says Peter Reynolds,
president of Brio of America, a maker of traditional wooden toys.
"You can sell anything out there (to kids) if you do it with enough
After a decade of political quietude, advertising to children has
become an issue again. In the late 1970s, the United States Federal
Trade Commission (FTC) proposed a ban on television advertising to
children. The commission cited considerable evidence that very young
children don't understand the nature of advertising. Therefore, it
contended, such advertising is inherently "unfair" within the
meaning of federal law.
The Canadian province of Quebec was impressed enough to enact
their own ban (see related story). But in the US, the FTC received a
sound political thrashing at the hands of the television, cereal,
and other lobbies. The agency's funding was held up and, on one day,
FTC employees couldn't even use their phones.
Since then, it has seemed to many like open season on kids. But
opposition to the advertising is growing. A bill moving through
Congress would limit TV ads for children and require broadcasters to
provide at least some educational programs. More importantly, the
"Channel One" venture may prod schools and parents to action of
It's no mystery why the American advertising industry is jostling
for the attention of the nation's children. Kids assert a potent
nagging force, affecting some $50 billion that their parents spend.
Kids themselves spend more than $4 billion a year on soft drinks,
chocolate bars, and other things parents often wish they had less
Social trends have hastened the redefining of children as
consumers. Baby boomers finally started having kids, for example;
and with more two-worker families, fewer adults were at home to
check what kids were seeing on TV after school.
"A lot of adults haven't watched children's television," says
Nancy Carlsson-Paige of Lesley College in Boston. She is co-author
of "Who's Calling the Shots," a book on the marketing of war toys.
Today, kids watch close to an hour of ads a day on TV. Studying
kids with new intensity, the nation's market-research experts found
that kids have more clout with busy parents than advertisers had
realized. TV networks seized on this information to convince more
companies that the way to mommy's pocket was through little Suzie or
In Washington during the 1980s, the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) said market forces rather than government should
rule, and in 1988 President Reagan vetoed a bill that would have
imposed mild restraints on children's ads. The atmosphere has
encouraged advertisers to take ever greater liberties. A new show
called "Video Power," planned for syndication next fall, is a kind
of Top 40 countdown of video games with ads spliced in without a
clear commercial break.
"It just so happens that's still illegal," says Peggy Charren of
Action For Children's Television (ACT) in Cambridge, Mass. "The
industry has forgotten that the rules are even there."
ACT has petitioned the FCC to restate its rules regarding the
separation of programs and ads. "We think we are even going to get
some action on it," she says. It's also likely that Congress will
enact a version of the bill Reagan vetoed. …