Zeroing in on those 'gambling' ads for kids

''The practice of selling a product by enticing children to play games of chance is proliferating,'' says Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television, a child-advocacy group. ''And unless the Federal Trade Commission takes a stand against it nobody will be able to stop it.''

ACT has been complaining for some time about children's TV commercials which use games of chance to sell ''highly sugared'' cereals to young children. ACT maintains that this type of advertising ''unfairly and deceptively misrepresents the probability of winning and implies to children that purchase of the cereals is necessary in order to participate in the games.''

Ms. Charren says she is deeply concerned by what she perceives to be gross irresponsibility on the part of the FTC, with which she has already filed several complaints.

''The commission has known for months that games of chance are being used to deceive young children into buying a product, yet nothing has been done to put an end to these ads. This is sheer negligence. The FTC's silence is a message to the cereal industry - and to every manufacturer who advertises to children - that anything goes.''

In her most recent letter of complaint to the FTC, Ms. Charren in her role as ACT president accused the agency of ''silent approval of unfair and deceptive advertising practices directed to children.''

An FTC spokeswoman told the Monitor it is that agency's policy to make no comment on petitions that come before it.

ACT's complaint is filed against General Foods Corporation and relates to a TV ad campaign that promotes Post sugared cereals by offering youngsters a chance to win a Coleco Mini Arcade video game if they buy specially marked boxes of Post Fruity Pebbles and Post Super Sugar Crisp cereals.

According to ACT, young children do not understand the distinction between ''can win'' and ''will win,'' especially in a commercial that uses some form of the word ''win'' four times in 30 seconds and features the word ''prize'' throughout the ad.

Kathleen C. MacDonough, director of corporate issues for General Foods, told the Monitor: ''We have reviewed the complaint and the commercial in question and we have reviewed promotional material relating to this promotion and we find that the ACT complaint is without basis. This commercial has met existing FTC regulatory requirements and General Foods' even more stringent requirements for such advertising.''

But Ms. Charren told the Monitor that ''this advertising is clearly designed to mislead just as much of the rest of children's ads do. Nobody knows better than advertisers how to use language to manipulate. And this ad is a perfect example of that problem.''

Two earlier complaints were filed by ACT against Quaker Oats Company and General Mills Inc. for ad campaigns using similar games of chance. According to ACT, the FTC has not yet responded to these previous complaints.

''If the FTC doesn't wake up,'' says Ms. Charren, ''the state of children's TV advertising will be the worst it has been for more than a decade.''

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