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Commercials Aimed at Kids Spark Debate

Pending legislation would limit television marketing for children and require more educational programming. TV ADVERTISING

By Jonathan RoweStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 18, 1990



NEW YORK

IF there's a quiet corner of childhood still untouched by the marketing industry, it is not apparent to the naked eye. Over the last decade, more advertising on television targeted kids, and ads penetrated to every nook and cranny of childhood experience - even to the school classroom, via the Whittle Corporation's ``Channel One,'' a news program for schools that includes commercials. Now that lessons are interrupted by messages for Nike shoes and M&M candies, there is a growing feeling that things have gotten out of hand.

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``We are raising children in an era of marketing, parented by parents raised in an era of marketing,'' says Peter Reynolds, president of Brio of America, a maker of traditional wooden toys. ``You can sell anything out there [to kids] if you do it with enough sophistication.''

After a decade of political quietude, advertising to children has become an issue again. In the late 1970s, the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) proposed a ban on television advertising to children. The commission cited considerable evidence that very young children don't understand the nature of advertising. Therefore, it contended, such advertising is inherently ``unfair'' within the meaning of federal law.

The Canadian province of Quebec was impressed enough to enact their own ban (see related story). But in the US, the FTC received a sound political thrashing at the hands of the television, cereal, and other lobbies. The agency's funding was held up and, on one day, FTC employees couldn't even use their phones.

Since then, it has seemed to many like open season on kids. But opposition to the advertising is growing. A bill moving through Congress would limit TV ads for children and require broadcasters to provide at least some educational programs. More importantly, the ``Channel One'' venture may prod schools and parents to action of their own.

It's no mystery why the American advertising industry is jostling for the attention of the nation's children. Kids assert a potent nagging force, affecting some $50 billion that their parents spend. Kids themselves spend more than $4 billion a year on soft drinks, chocolate bars, and other things parents often wish they had less of.

Social trends have hastened the redefining of children as consumers. Baby boomers finally started having kids, for example; and with more two-worker families, fewer adults were at home to check what kids were seeing on TV after school.

``A lot of adults haven't watched children's television,'' says Nancy Carlsson-Paige of Lesley College in Boston. She is co-author of ``Who's Calling the Shots,'' a book on the marketing of war toys.

Today, kids watch close to an hour of ads a day on TV. Studying kids with new intensity, the nation's market-research experts found that kids have more clout with busy parents than advertisers had realized. TV networks seized on this information to convince more companies that the way to mommy's pocket was through little Suzie or Billy.

In Washington during the 1980s, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said market forces rather than government should rule, and in 1988 President Reagan vetoed a bill that would have imposed mild restraints on children's ads. The atmosphere has encouraged advertisers to take ever greater liberties. A new show called ``Video Power,'' planned for syndication next fall, is a kind of Top 40 countdown of video games with ads spliced in without a clear commercial break.

``It just so happens that's still illegal,'' says Peggy Charren of Action For Children's Television (ACT) in Cambridge, Mass. ``The industry has forgotten that the rules are even there.''

ACT has petitioned the FCC to restate its rules regarding the separation of programs and ads. ``We think we are even going to get some action on it,'' she says. It's also likely that Congress will enact a version of the bill Reagan vetoed.