Stay Tuned: The Exploitation Of Children In Television Advertisements
Across America in the homes of the rich, the not-so-rich, and in
poverty-stricken homes and tenements, as well as in schools and businesses,
sits advertisers' mass marketing tool, the television, usurping freedoms from
children and their parents and changing American culture. Virtually an entire
nation has surrendered itself wholesale to a medium for selling. Advertisers,
within the constraints of the law, use their thirty-second commercials to
target America's youth to be the decision-makers, convincing their parents to
buy the advertised toys, foods, drinks, clothes, and other products.
in this targeting, especially of the very young, are the advertisers;
fostering the youth's loyalty to brands, creating among the children a loss of
individuality and self-sufficiency, denying them the ability to explore and
create but instead often encouraging poor health habits. The children
demanding advertiser's products are influencing economic hardships in many
families today. These children, targeted by advertisers, are so vulnerable to
trickery, are so mentally and emotionally unable to understand reality because
they lack the cognitive reasoning skills needed to be skeptical of
advertisements. Children spend thousands of hours captivated by various
advertising tactics and do not understand their subtleties. Though advertisers
in America's free enterprise system are regulated because of societal pressures,
they also are protected in their rights under freedom of expression to unfairly
target America's youth in order to sell to their parents, regardless of the very
young's inability to recognize the art of persuasion.In the free enterprise system, the advertiser's role is to persuade
consumers to buy their products/services.
They are given a product/service and
are required to use their best creative effort to make this product desirable
to the intended audience (Krugman 37). Because of this calculated and what
many deem as manipulative way of enticing the target audience, the advertising
industry is charged with several ethical breeches, which focus on a lack of
societal responsibility (Treise 59). Child Advocacy groups and concerned
parents, among others, question the ethicality of advertising claims and
appeals that are directed towards vulnerable groups in particular, children
(Bush 31).The fundamental criticism is that children are an unfair market. The
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates the advertising industry to ensure
consumers' protection from false or misleading information.
The question many
assert is should the government be allowed to monitor what is legitimate simply
because some do not approve (Hernandez 34). This question requires value
judgments that can only be answered through constructing public policy (Kunkel
58). Most people in society recognize that television advertising directed
towards children is excessive, manipulative and takes unfair advantage of
children (Kunkel 60).In a recent survey from the researcher, it was documented that 80% of
adults with children wanted governmental regulation to protect children from
television advertising (See Appendix 1). Research in the social science fields
such as psychology and communication documents how the child interprets a given
Findings indicate for one, the majority of children
up to age five "experience difficulty distinguishing perceptually between
programs and commercials" (Kunkel 62).It is noted that children at this
young age tend to treat all television content as a unidimensional type of
message. For instance, child viewers do not begin to discriminate between
fantasy or reality dimensions of television content at the most basic levels
until grade school. Advertisers compound this issue by using perceptual
similarities in program content and commercial content which adds to the
difficulty children already have in distinguishing between the two variables.
Secondly, the study substantiates that, "A substantial proportion of children,
particularly those below age eight, express little or no comprehension of the
persuasive intent of commercials" (Kunkel 63). This is a crucial argument in
regards to the legality of unfair advertising. Children eight and younger are
an unfair market, for they do not understand the intent of the advertisement.For the child to recognize and appreciate the persuasive intent of television
advertising, he/she would be able to identify the following characteristics:
"the source of the advertisement has perspectives and interests other than
those of the receiver, the source intends to persuade, persuasive messages are
biased, and biased messages demand different interpretive strategies than do
unbiased messages" (Kunkel 64).
Thirdly, research has found "younger children
who are unaware of the persuasive intent of television advertising tend to
express greater belief in commercials and a higher frequency of purchase
requests" (Kunkel 64). Children are an unfair market in this regard because
they simply do not understand the commercial claim may be exaggerated and
biased. The child often does not understand that when he/she gets the product ,
it may not be as spectacular as it was made out to be in the advertisement
(Kunkel 64).Popular studies give evidence that children are often mesmerized by
television (Signorielli 34). Children fixate upon television and become
hypnotized by watching.
The attention level of young viewers is elevated in
the presence of children, eye contact, puppets, and rapid pacing (Van Eura 23).Television advertisements target younger audiences by using colorful images and
rapid movement often in the form of animation (Brady). The advertisements
primarily directed towards the childrens' market are for toys and foods
(Pediatrics 295). Studies show that children see the images on television as a
window of the world, these images affect their thoughts and ideas (Pingree 253).Therefore, advertisers are manipulating children by predominantly showing
advertisements that encourage materialism and eating.Research findings on how children interpret television commercials are
not the only indicator of what constitutes a fair market.
along with the observations of other regarded professionals, observe the
exploitation of the children's market. According to Cynthia Schiebe, assistant
professor of psychology at Ithaca College and director of The Center for
Research on the Effects of Television, has the following to say in relation to
children as an unfair market:
"The point is not that advertising is wrong, but it often plays
unfair...Children can't distinguish the persuasive intent of
There is enormous evidence that young children
have various difficulties in understanding the nature of
commercials. They give more credibility to the person speaking
than they should, especially if it's someone like Cap'n Crunch
or Ronald McDonald, or someone who is a role model."
Ms. Schiebe, through her work as a psychologist and a researcher, asserts that
adults have the capabilities to detect persuasive strategies where children do
not have the same capabilities.
Peggy Charren, leader for 25 years of Action
for Children's Television (ACT), believes that advertising takes advantage of
impressionable youngsters. Charren states, "Children are the only unpaid sales
force in the history of America. Advertisers don't expect kids to buy the
product. The kids are being used to sell the product to the parent."
According to James U. McNeal, a Texas A&M University Marketing professor ,
states, "What distinguishes children from other viewers is not so much what
advertiser's show them, but how they interpret it.
Children are literalists,
which makes them more vulnerable to advertising's message. For them seeing is
believing" (Guber).Though questions of ethicality are denounced extensively, advertising to
children persist on the forefront of American culture. Advertisers continue to
focus on the children's market because children have become a tremendous source
of revenue and an increasingly important commodity for the advertising and
marketing industry. In 1993 alone, children between the ages of four and 12
in the United States had a disposable income of 17 billion dollars. Not only
do children have their own money to spend, but children with two working
parents influence their parents to spend annually 155 billion dollars (Collins
Advertisers do not only see children in terms of immediate discretionary
income that is available to spend, but perhaps even more valuable to the
marketer is the brand loyalty potential. The advertiser's mission is to
convince the child to want a particular brand, to then have a preference and
liking for the brand and therefore to purchase the product again and again
which then implies a brand loyalty has been established (Sissors).Advertisers do not only employ this brand loyalty tactic in commercials aimed at
the child, but they also implicitly target other campaigns to meet the appeals
of children. For example, children surveyed had a particular fondness for the
Michelin tire campaign which features babies. Though these children will not
be buying tires for awhile, the implication that brand loyalty has been
established seems great (Wujtas 50).
Research has confirmed that children
establish brand loyalty as early as the age of two years old. An older audience
has an awareness of close to 1500 brand names where as a young child has little
preconceived preferences. (Guber) With a combination of money to spend and an
open mind for the potential to create a brand loyal consumer at an early age,
children are an irresistible market to American businesses.With such tremendous potentiality for revenues and brand loyalty,
advertisers target the children's market with vengeance. Advertisers annually
spend close to 471 million dollars on advertising to children.
While the rest
of the advertising industry is suffering from a three year decline, the amount
of money spent on children's advertising continues to increase despite heated
controversy over the ethicality of targeting a vulnerable and unfair market
(Wartella 461). Contemporary advertisers flood the marketplace in practically
every outlet daily with their claims and appeals. Advertisements can be found
virtually everywhere. Common media vehicles used for the children's market are,
television commercials with an increase during children's programs, especially
Saturday morning programming, on videotapes, in children's magazines , in
malls, and even in the classroom through television- educational programming
(Collins 4). One television outlet that has received a considerable amount of
negative publicity is Channel One. This is a program where marketers enter
the classroom setting by embedding advertisements aimed at children into
segments of a 12 minute newscast that is shown daily in more than 12,000
schools across the country.
The appeal to advertisers is to guarantee reaching
the intended target audience (Wartella 451). The result to children is
exploitation which is basically sponsored by the school system via television
advertisers.Many other vehicles are used in the targeting of the children's market,
however, television advertising is perceived as the most effective source in
reaching children. The increase of cable options and the amount of time
children spend watching the television allows the advertiser to make his
exposure and frequency appeals more readily than ever before. Next to sleeping,
children spend the majority of their free time watching television (Lazar 67).By the time a young child graduates from high school, he/she will have seen an
estimated 350,000 commercials (Carlsson-Paige 68).
For the average child, the
television set is on in the home for an average of seven hours per day. In a
one week time frame the average preschool-aged child (ages two through five)
watches 28 hours of television. The average school-aged child (ages six to 11)
watches 24 hours of television (Kotz 1296). With such an advent of exposure
time the young child is repetitively exposed to the advertisers persuasive
dialogue.Children are drawn to the mystique and excitement the television set
offers. Due to demographic shifts in the American family it is unlikely that
parents will give up the television's entertaining baby-sitting function.
the last two decades, the number of working women with young children and the
number of single parent families has sharply risen. In addition statistics
recorded in 1990 report, reflect that nearly three-fourths of both parents in
married-couple families with children work on a full or part-time basis.Therefore, with the current increase of pressures from home, work, and single
parenthood the child becomes attached to the television and all it has to offer,
which to a large extent is a selling medium (Lazar 68). The lack of social
policy which supports families and regulates children's television leaves the
child vulnerable and exploited from the marketplace.The venues advertisers use to market products to children have widened
with increasing technology, marketing ploys and an increase of child oriented
products/services. Beginning in the middle of the 1970's, the children's
television market grew through the addition of independent television channels
and cable networks.
The early 1980's introduced a successful marketing device
known as the program-length commercial which capitalized on taking advantage of
an unaware audience (Wartella 449). The program-length commercial is a
television show where the main character is modeled after a toy product. The
entire program is built around demonstrating to children how to play with a
product then encouraging them to buy it. This strategy is extremely successful
for many in the toy industry who usually are the ones funding the marketing
and production. Mattel who was the first to pioneer the program-length
commercial in the early eighties doubled their sales for their He-Man action
figure shortly after implementation of the advertisement (Carlsson-Paige 69).
This implies that such advertising manipulates children through a character
they admire and encourages the child to want this product by extending the
exposure so that the child will demand the product. The proliferation of new
products aimed for children increases the number of television commercials as
well. Common categories are videotapes, 900 number information services, a
wider range of food products, including children's TV dinners and other foods
that can be prepared by children, an expanded line of clothing and apparel, and
an increase of travel advertisements, such as Disneyland, which are aimed
explicitly for children to influence their parents vacation choices (Wartella
449).Children have dominant influence on purchases and consumption rates in
American families for several changing sociological reasons. Children are
influencing more purchases because families today are having only one child,
hence the increase of one parent families forces the child to a do a great
extent of his/her own shopping.
More women are delaying childbearing,
therefore, when she decides to have a child generally their is more money open
to spend than when she was younger. And in 70% of U.S. households both parents
work , requiring children to become more self-reliant than earlier generations
Besides being an ethical issue, exploiting children creates adverse
effects. A study conducted by the American Dietetic Association reveals that
advertisers primarily promote high fat and/or high sugar foods and drinks to
children. The foods being advertised are not consistent with dietary
recommendations. With the extended periods of time contemporary American
children spend watching television, concern has risen on the implications this
has on health attitudes and behaviors of children. By broadcasting the
antithesis of a healthful diet, it may be a significant contributor to obesity
in children. Obesity is the result of an energy imbalance that is created when
the diet contains mostly high fat and sugar (Kotz 1298).
The American Dietetic Association conducted their study by viewing 52.5
hours of television during children's programming. In that time 997
commercials were for a product and a mere 68 were public service announcements.More than half (56.5%) were advertisements for foods while only 10 of the 68
public service announcements were nutrition related.
On the average of the 19
commercials advertisements per hour 11 were for food. This means a child views
a commercial for food every five minutes (Kotz 1297).This may be an acceptable practice if the foods advertised were
nutritious, however, predominantly the foods were inconsistent with what
constitutes a healthful diet. Of the 564 food advertisements, 43.6% were for
foods in the fats, oils and sweets group. 37.
5% were for foods in the breads,
cereals, rice and pasta food group, however, 23% of those ads were for high
sugar cereals. In this particular study there was not a single advertisement
for fruits or vegetables (Kotz 1297).This skewed portrayal of a healthful diet has detrimental consequences
not only as a short term effect but the overall effect will stay with the child
throughout his/her life. In the United States nine out of 10 adults are at an
increased risk of diet related chronic disease. The American Dietetic
Association recommends a diet high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes
and to keep fat intake to a minimal, a diet many Americans are lacking perhaps
due to advertising's neglect. Because dietary patterns of children mirror
those of adults, children too are lacking a healthful diet.
that the atherosclerotic process begins in early childhood and that preventing
or slowing this process could extend years of healthful living for many
Americans (Kotz 1296).Although it is difficult to distinguish the effect television has on
behavioral effects of children, studies show that the amount of time a child
spends watching television directly correlates with the request , purchase, and
consumption of foods advertised on television. Heavy marketing of high fat
and/or sugar foods and not advertising foods with nutritional value is
exploitation; the child does not have the knowledge of what is healthful and is
not able to understand that commercials are designed to sell products (Kotz
1299). This view is accepted by The American Academy of Pediatrics as well.Their position is stated as the following:
Parents rather than children should determine what children
Children are unprepared to make appropriate food
choices and do not understand the relationship of food choices
to health maintenance and disease prevention....Because young
children can not understand the relationship between food
choices and chronic nutritional diseases, advertising food
products to children promotes profit rather than health (Kotz 1300).
Profit seems to be the main motivation in the advertising world. The
second effect advertisers promote in young children is materialism coupled often
with a loss of self-sufficiency in their ability to make the best with what
they have. Due to advertisers influential power on children and the advent of
the program-length commercial, children think they have to have certain toys
just in order to play. In the past, children created their own accessories,
props and so forth in acting out their play.
Today, advertisers convince
children they must have a manufactured accessory and prop to play. Basically,
the advertiser is taking control of the situation and therefore undermining the
child's basic sense of self-sufficiency (Carlsson-Paige 69).Not only do advertisers dictate how children should play, but they are
also creating an environment where children consistently demand more. Toy
manufacturers produce lines of toys which are correlated with cartoons or other
children's programming. This type of strategy is successful in making the
child want it more.
The toys being sold in this way have only one specific
function so the child has to get other components to play effectively. The
advertiser is getting the child to think in terms of quantity (Carlsson-Paige
69). This creates profit for the advertising industry and creates a
materialistic view of the world for the child.Concern of the implications of television has received attention for
more than 30 years. Through the pressures of children's advocacy groups, the
television market has received some regulation, though minimal. Many critics
argue it is not enough and the government must intervene to stop the
exploitation of children through television advertising.
Current and past
regulations imply that the profitability of the market place is regarded more
highly than the welfare of children (Kunkel 57).The controversy heated up in the late 1960's when children were
considered their own market because of the vast array of commercials directed
explicitly to the children's market. Advertisers used direct hard-sell
approaches in attempts to persuade the children's market to want the
product/service. The advertisers focused their approach on exaggerated claims
and showed these commercials often. The public took notice of the repetitiveness
and appeals being used and voiced their concern to the Federal Communications
Commission (Kunkel 59).
In 1970, pressures from a child advocacy group, Action for Children's
television (ACT) presented ample evidence to the FCC on television advertising
exploitation of children. According to findings conducted by the Surgeon
Generals Report, advertising is exploiting children because, one, children the
age of five can not distinguish program content from commercial content and ,
two, children eight and under do not have the cognitive skills to identify
persuasion (Lazar 69). Therefore children are an unfair market and the public
expects protection on a government level.ACT petitioned the FCC to ban all advertisements directed towards
children eight and under. Despite receiving more than 100,000 letters in
support of ACT's petition, the FCC did not comply with the request.
the FCC four years to come up with some restrictions. The restrictions
included: advertiser's must limit advertisement time to 9.5 minutes per hour on
weekends when viewing is highest and 12 minutes during the week (Lazar 70).The FCC believed reducing frequency would offer the child some sort of
protection from exploitation.
In order to protect the child five and under who
cannot distinguish program content from advertisers, the FCC required all
stations to comply with the separation principle. This policy was applied in
three different areas: One new requirement was that all television programs
adopt a separation device referred to as a Bumper. This device signals to the
child a commercial is about to be broadcast. For instance, an announcer might
say, "And now a word from our sponsor" (Kankel 62). Critics claim that
advertisers have circumvented the rules and they minimize the warnings. For
example when speaking disclaimers such as the one mentioned before, the voice
over is spoken rapidly and is not understood fully by the child viewer
The second area of regulation prohibited host selling.Host selling is when a character from the program promoted products either
directly or adjacent to their show. For example a Barbie Doll commercial could
not be seen during a Barbie Doll television show. And thirdly, program-length
commercials were prohibited at this time (Kankel 62).
In the early 1980's during the time of the Reagan administration, the
advertising industry basically deregulated itself.Mattel and other toy
companies reinstated the program-length commercial. In 1984, ACT responded to
the proliferation of program length commercials by filing a complaint to the
FCC. However, according to the FCC, "marketplace forces can better determine
commercial levels than our own rules" (Lazar 70).
Kunkel and Roberts had the
following conclusion to make: "When forced to choose at an extreme level,
society(at least in the form of its representative government) valued the
protection of private enterprise, commercial speech, and some degree of the
concept of caveat emptor more than it valued the protection of children in
their interaction with these institutions" (67).The government needs to intervene with some form of regulated guidelines
because a child can not be regarded in the same sense as an adult audience.Children are vulnerable to persuasion and should not forced to succumb to
materialism so early in life.There have been others concerned with this position and freedom of
expression in the free enterprise system has allowed television to become the
mass marketing tool. Advertisers seem unconcerned about ethical obligations.So it has to be individual families to shield their children from exploitation.
Cynthia Scheibe, psychology professor, and Peggy Charren, founder of ACT,
has the following recommendations to lessen the degree of exploitation of
children. The amount of television watched should be limited in order to
decrease its negative effects. Adults should impress upon youngsters that
having more toys or clothes won't always bring satisfaction. As a parent, one
should watch the advertisements with the child and ask the child such questions
as "What is it they're trying to sell?" The parent should also take the child
to the store to see if the desired products are really as exciting in real life
as they appear to be on television.
The parent should point out to the child
that the objects surrounding the product are unrealistically big meaning the
toy is probably smaller than it appears. And lastly, get the child to make up
his or her own commercial and try to sell a product to another child to see
how difficult it is to sell a product fairly in 30 seconds (Collins 5).Although these suggestions are useful they still are not a remedy for
the problem advertisers create. It is society's responsibility to push for
regulation that will protect America's children from advertisers' exploitation.The first amendment gives all citizens responsibility along with freedom: the
responsibility to protect their vulnerable youth, the responsibility to limit
their excesses, which with the pervasion of advertising has become next to
impossible, and the responsibility to insulate children from a world of adults
who employ unfair tactics just to sell.
It is the duty of adults to teach
sound ethics to children rather than to breach all ethical considerations for
the purpose of selling, thus brainwashing our children through commercials and
making them feel incomplete, inferior, and inadequate if they do not purchase
various advertised products. It is citizens' responsibility to nurture
children to become self-sufficient, creative, healthy adults who have not a
distorted propensity for materialism. The welfare of America's children is the
welfare of her future.
Survey of parents with children between the ages of one and eight years old. The
following questions were answered by the 10 parents who participated in the
1. Do you think children's advertising is manipulative?
10% No opinion
Has your child ever asked you to purchase a product they saw advertised?
90% answered Yes
0% answered No
10% did not remember
3. Did the purchased advertised product live up to your child's expectations?
50% answered Yes
40% answered No
10% do not remember
4. Do you think the government should regulate children's advertising?
80% answered Yes
10% answered No
10% had no opinion
Brady, Diane. "The Power of Cowabunga.
" Maclean's Dec. 1992: 50.
Bush, Alan J., and Victoria Davis Bush. "The Narrative Paradigm as a
Perspective For Improving Ethical Evaluations of Advertisements.
" Journal of
Advertising 23.3 (1994): 31-41.
Carlson-Paige, Nancy and Diane E. Lerin. "Saturday Morning Pushers." Utne
Collins, Claire. "Fighting the Holiday Ad Blitz." The New York Times Nov.1994: 3-4.
Guber, Selina S. and Jon Berry. Marketing to and through kids New York:
Hernandez, Debra Gersh.
"Unfair advertising defined for FTC." Editor and
Publishing Oct. 1994: 34.
Kotz, Krista. "Food Advertisements during Children's Saturday Morning
Television Programming: Are they consistent with dietary recommendations?"
Journal of the American Dietetic Association 94.
11 (1994): 1296-1300.
Krugman, and others. Advertising: It's Role in Modern Marketing. Fort Worth:
The Dryden Press, 1994.
Kunkel, Dale and Donald Roberts.
"Young Minds and Marketplace Values: Issues in
Children's Television Advertising." Journal of Social Issues 47.1(199