WASHINGTON (CNS) — Many adults can remember the commercial pitches tailored just for them when they were children. They may have had to do with box tops of cereal, proof-of-purchase seals to obtain fantastic goodies, and the ever-popular first words of countless commercials: “Hey, kids!”
There has been considerable debate over the years as to what is the second-oldest profession, and advertising might be it.
But when things got out of hand when today’s baby-boomers were kids, clear-minded adults did their best to put an end to commercial pitches.
Angela Campbell, an attorney with the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, documented this history in a paper published in January, “Rethinking Children’s Advertising Policies for the Digital Age.”
Studies dating back more than a generation documented that “children, especially young children, had difficulty distinguishing commercial matter from program matter,” Campbell said. As a result, most kids’ shows on TV added “bumpers” — often the phrase “We’ll be right back after these commercial messages” — between the show and the ads.
ABC aired a Saturday morning cartoon, “Hot Wheels,” with the help of the guiding hand of Mattel, which was introducing Hot Wheels cars. The show, the Federal Communications Commission said in a policy statement five years after the series debuted, was essentially a program-length commercial — and “the clearest examples of incorporating promotional matter into a program” that should be shunned by broadcasters, Campbell wrote.
Not every attempt to rein in advertisers proved successful. In 1978, the Federal Trade Commission announced its intent to develop a rule to combat the prevalence of ads touting heavily sugared cereals.
“Hundreds of written comments were filed. In addition, an administrative law judge held hearings which produced 60,000 pages of expert testimony and 6,000 pages of oral testimony from some of the world’s leading experts on health, child psychology and nutrition,” Campbell said. “Three years later, however, the FTC terminated this rule-making proceeding without taking any action. The advertising industry heavily lobbied against the proposal, and it succeeded in getting Congress to pass a law that revoked the FTC’s authority to conduct rule-making proceedings concerning unfair advertising to children.”
But there have been notable successes.
In 1990, Congress passed the Children’s Television Act, limiting ads on kids’ TV shows to 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays. The FCC later extended this regulation to apply to satellite-TV services and to broadcast stations’ digital subchannels.
Congress also passed the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in 1998. “While COPPA has undoubtedly helped protect children from abusive marketing, several factors have inhibited its success,” Campbell said. One factor is that the FTC has brought only 28 enforcement actions in the 19 years since it passed, none concerning unfair or deceptive marketing to children.
One justification behind all these laws and regulations is that the cognitive capacity of children is still developing. “The FCC’s 1974 policy statement was grounded in child developmental and psychology research finding that ‘young children lacked the necessary sophistication to appreciate the nature and purpose of advertising.’ Research over the last 30 years has confirmed and expanded upon these findings,” and further research has shown that even adults can’t always make the distinction between program content and ad content.
Another consideration is that children are more susceptible than adults to advertising.
“Because they are just developing their cognitive capabilities, children are more trusting than adults and thus, more vulnerable to ‘commercial pitches’ by program hosts, a practice known as ‘host selling,'” Campbell said. “The FCC prohibits host-selling on children’s television programs because it takes ‘unfair advantage’ of children’s trust in program characters. The FCC noted that ‘even performers themselves recognize that, since a special relationship tends to develop between hosts and young children in the audience, commercial messages are likely to be viewed as advice from a friend.'”
This is manifested in today’s TV advertising by which demographic groups get targeted. The general rule of thumb is that the younger the viewer, the more they can be persuaded to buy a product being plugged instead of the competitor’s version they’ve been buying.
In network TV, the general demographic age is 18-49. For network news shows, the demographic target is 25-54. Cable TV channels program their schedule to reach men, kids, ethnic groups; Freeform — once known as ABC Family — tries for the female age 12-34 crowd, “from your first kiss to your first baby.”
Moreover, market forces don’t protect children, Campbell said. “Because children naturally love toys and characters, market forces cannot be relied on to protect children from excessive, deceptive, or unfair advertising,” she added. “Young children cannot be expected to change the channel or turn off the television set because of excessive or deceptive advertising.”
This column touches upon about half of Campbell’s analysis. The next column will highlight the tactics used by advertisers today to lure children.
Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.