Commercials Aimed at Kids Spark Debate

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

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.

``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.

Taken alone, these actions are modest. But they come in the context of a larger trend. Business Week recently warned executives of a mounting ``consumer revolt against advertising,'' and children appear to be a leading issue. In New York City, for example, a major billboard company has bowed to community pressure and agreed to remove alcohol and tobacco billboards from within five blocks of a church or school.

To protect students from youths who are literally killing to dress, inner-city principals are requiring school uniforms and dress codes that prohibit such items as leather coats and high-fashion shoes. (There were 64 armed robberies for jackets between September and December last year in Newark, N.J., alone.)

There are rumblings in the classroom as well. To be sure, ``Channel One'' has enthusiastic supporters. Some school systems, strapped for funds, leaped at the chance to get television sets for free - Whittle's inducement to subscribe to the show. But the two largest states, New York and California, turned Whittle down cold. And the general outcry focused attention on commercialism in the classroom in a way that hadn't happened before.

Some teachers, for example, have suggested a use for ``Channel One'' that Whittle hadn't posed to potential advertisers.

``It could provide an opportunity to talk about advertising propaganda,'' says Cheryl Blau, a fifth-grade teacher in Southfield, Mich. Ms. Blau uses the Cable News Network's ``Newsroom,'' a competitor to Whittle that runs no ads. It now reaches some 10,000 schools, compared with about 4,000 for ``Channel One.''

At present, it appears there are no standard curriculum materials that deal with the techniques and visual language of ads. But individual teachers often tackle the subject on their own. One such teacher is Joanne Oppenheim, a former elementary school teacher who later wrote a book on toys and toy marketing called ``Buy Me, Buy Me.'' Ms. Oppenheim asked her pupils to write ads for imaginary products, to engage them in writing as well as to make them more skeptical of advertising.

``It demystifies the ads in some ways,'' says Oppenheim, who is now a researcher at the Bank Street College in New York. ``The kids brought great interest to these areas.''

The closest thing to a course curriculum may be Penny Power, a kind of Consumers Reports magazine for kids that is published by Consumers Union in Mount Vernon, N.Y. In Penny Power, eight-to-14-year olds rate such products as microwave snacks and colas. (Blindfolded, they couldn't distinguish the brand they thought was their favorite.) While the emphasis is on smart shopping, there are Mad Magazine-style parodies of ads, and a general irreverence toward the consumer culture.

Penny Power has some 160,000 subscribers, including 2,500 for classrooms. It moved to television last Christmas, in the form of a Home Box Office (HBO) feature called, ``Buy Me That,'' which has aired numerous times since. ``It was extremely popular,'' says Sheila Nevins of HBO. ``It wasn't anti-advertising; it was pro-kids.''

Challenging ads is touchy territory for most media outlets, however. (HBO is ad-free.) Even print: Oppenheim, for example, couldn't get magazines to focus on toy advertising. ``The parenting magazines are all dependent on toy advertising money,'' she says.

Teachers, meanwhile, face the problem of increasing demands on scant classroom time. ``We have to spend more time preparing kids for the [standardized] tests, so we can all keep our jobs,'' says Patricia Graham, dean of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.

But if sheer outrage is any gauge, there may well be more along this line. ``Basically, we are a disgusting industry,'' says Mr. Reynolds of Brio. ``The best gift we could give would be to stop advertising on TV.''

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