Why is the Government Protecting Corporations That Prey on Kids?

In 1980, the U.S. Congress passed a law to protect adults who prey on children.

You read that correctly. Public Law 96-252 prohibits the Federal Trade Commission from enacting rules that would protect the nation’s children from commercial advertising that exploits their vulnerable and trusting natures.

This law is corporate power incarnate. It should be the role of Congress to protect children, not those who would prey upon them. Congress ought to repeal it.

Back then, the FTC was trying to respond to an increase in aggressive marketing aimed at children. Now, two decades later, that increase has become a deluge. Kids are literally assaulted from morning to night. Advertisers target them at home, school, and virtually all points in between.

According to Professor James U. McNeal, an expert on marketing to children, “Virtually every consumer-goods industry, from airlines to zinnia-seed sellers, targets kids.”

Because of this, it has become nearly impossible for parents to control advertisers’ access to their kids.

Some advertisers exploit children’s weaknesses in order to get them to want products. For example, Nancy Shalek, president of the Shalek Agency, told the Los Angeles Times that “Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you’re a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that … You open up emotional vulnerabilities and it’s very easy to do with kids because they’re the most emotionally vulnerable.”

Some advertisers admit that they want to control children’s minds. For example, Julie Halpin, CEO of Gepetto Group, which specializes in marketing to kids, explains that “Kids marketing in general is becoming more sophisticated” in competing for what she calls “share of mind.”

Mike Searles, former president of Kids-R-Us, a major children’s clothing store, said that “[I]f you own this child at an early age, you can own this child for years to come. Companies are saying, ‘Hey, I want to own the kid younger and younger.'”

Marketers believe they are succeeding. Professor McNeal says that “Advertising targeted at elementary school children, on programs just for them, works very effectively in the sense of implanting brand names in their minds and creating desires for the products.”

That’s great for advertisers but bad for parents. The problem is that children appear to be developing health problems because they do precisely what the ads are urging. For example:

Alcohol

Alcohol is a major cause of death among teenagers. It contributes significantly to motor vehicle crashes, injuries, suicide, date rape, and problems with school and family. It makes no sense to encourage children to drink beer or hard liquor. Nevertheless, the Federal Trade Commission recently found that the alcohol industry often advertises to audiences that include large numbers of children including placing their products in PG and PG-13 films with significant appeal to teens and children, such as films featuring animals or coming-of-age stories. The industry also advertises on 8 of the 15 television shows most popular with teens.

Tobacco

The deadly effects of tobacco advertising on American children are well-documented by the FTC and the Journal of the American Medical Association. RJR Nabisco’s Joe Camel helped seduce hundreds of thousands of children into a lifetime of smoking. Each day, another 3,000 children start to smoke. About a third of them will have their lives cut short by smoking-related illnesses. Almost two-thirds of 12th graders who smoke choose Marlboro. That is no accident. The Marlboro Man plays to the desires of young people for independence.

Violent entertainment

Following the school shootings in Jonesboro, Pearl, Springfield, Paducah, and Littleton, some media experts, psychologists, and elected officials have suggested that violent entertainment including violent video games, movies, and television may be contributing to the occurrence of such events. For example, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, coauthor of the new book Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill, argues that first-person shooter video games such as Duke Nukem, Time Crisis, and Quake “teach children the motor skills to kill, like military training devices do. And then they turn around and teach them to like it like the military would never do.”

Junk food and fast food

Children are subjected to a barrage of ads for Whoppers, Happy Meals, Coke, Pepsi, Snickers bars, M&M’s, and other junk foods and fast foods. They are urged by these ads to buy these products directly themselves or, if they are too young, to nag their parents. These ads may contribute to skyrocketing levels of childhood obesity. About 25 to 30 percent of American children are now clinically obese. Severe obesity among young children has almost doubled since the 1960s. Similarly, childhood diabetes is also on the rise.

As a minimum response, Congress should now take the initiative to restore the full authority of the FTC to rule on marketing to children, to cure these fundamentally unfair and deceptive practices.

Furthermore, Congress should now tell the FTC to make such rules, and give the FTC enough money to enable the FTC to move quickly to protect children from this part of the advertising industry and its commercial molestations.

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