Light Touch Needed on Kids Advertising

Mar 29, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Some key figures involved in advertising and media buying sounded an alarm during the recent children’s ad market, warning that this upfront could be the last. Those predictions may have been overstated, but they do have some basis in reality.
At the center of the concerns is a fear of intensified government regulation of children’s advertising, which could even lead to the elimination of most kids advertising on TV. The alarms have been sounded in large part by public interest groups that believe advertising aimed at children, particularly for certain fatty, sugary and fast foods, is contributing to an obesity problem among young people, which in turn is causing a health crisis.
Given the current climate in Washington, where lawmakers are worked up about so-called indecency on TV, it’s hardly a stretch to imagine Congress and the Federal Trade Commission turning their attention next to the content of commercials. We hope it doesn’t come to that.
Obesity in young people is a legitimate concern, and it is appropriate for our national leaders to keep an eye on the situation. But if the government follows the pattern it has taken with the indecency issue, slapping together hastily drawn regulations of questionable value, then the television industry, advertisers and viewers would be the losers.
The suggestion by the Center for Science in the Public Interest that the government create a list of good and bad foods, and then permit only the good foods to advertise to children, is downright ludicrous. The potential for abuse of such a program is staggering, while the likelihood that it would accomplish anything useful is almost nonexistent.
The marketplace is in the process of responding to a public shift to more nutritious foods because consumers are voting with their purchases. Now it is up to those in the TV industry-both broadcast and cable-to step up and create sensible voluntary guidelines before regulation is forced down their collective throats.
The government’s role should be to maintain a level playing field for all, provide the tools for the free market to do its job, and most important, give parents the tools they need. Ultimately, it is up to parents to guide their own children down a healthy path. Regulators can help with education and can play a valuable role by providing tools, such as the TV ratings and the v-chip. Both have been around for a while and have not been widely used because people don’t know about them or don’t understand how to use them. The government and industry’s first initiative should be to make that information widely available.
The television industry is already working on the obesity issue, as it should be, by developing nutrition-oriented public service announcements. It would be wise for the industry to step up those efforts to reassure lawmakers that TV takes its responsibilities seriously.