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Stay tuned the exploitation of children in television advert

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. Inherent 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 television advertisement.

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. Public opinion, 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 commercials. 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 4).

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. In 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


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 (Wartella 451).

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


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. Evidence indicates 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


Parents rather than children should determine what children should eat.

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. It took 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 (Pediatrics 295). 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.

Appendix I

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 survey:

1. Do you think children's advertising is manipulative?

80% Agreed

10% Disagreed

10% No opinion

2. 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

Works Cited

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 Reader

Jan. 1992: 68-70.

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: Mcgraw-Hill,


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

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