In the Name of Freedom, Advertising That Targets Children Must Become Illegal

by Jacques Brodeur

In our ultra-mediated societies, predators are everywhere. That doesn’t make them easy to find. Many of them are hired as professionals for the purpose of increasing screen-time exposure of our most vulnerable fellow citizens, children. The industries hiring them are in the business of catching children’s attention and selling it to marketers. These professionals use sophisticated strategies to seduce them into sitting in front of screens and to keep them there for longer periods of time, more frequently, and as early as possible after their birth. A brand-new seat appeared on the market recently that illustrates the appetite for babies’ attention. And it gets worse as children get older: today, children 8 to 10 years old spend more time watching screens than attending school.

In our modern world, society seems to be divided in two: those in the biggest group live in front of screens; those who make up the smallest work behind screens. The latter group includes broadcasters, producers of screen entertainment, and marketers, hiring thousands of professionals whose mission is to keep people in the first group sedentary. Broadcasters make more profit by increasing the number of people in the audience because they’re in the business of selling brain-time to marketers. The ultimate rule decided by these marketers is simple: They are ready to pay more to broadcasters who deliver access to more viewers. tasty snacks 5xhourThat’s the reason that, every hour, around the planet, huge numbers of people are watching (or playing), including toddlers, children, adolescents, and adults.

In Quebec, efforts to protect children
By the mid-1970s, twenty years after the intrusion of television into North American homes, legislators in the Province of Québec voted unanimously to ban advertising that targets children. The bill had been prepared by the Liberal Party in the spring of 1976 and put on the agenda of the Assemblée Nationale in the fall of the same year by the newly elected Parti Québecois. The vote in favor of the ban was unanimous. Over the next four years, the government prepared the detailed regulation, which came into effect in 1980. After that year, most marketing industries were informed about the ruling. Knowing, however, that the law was facing a challenge in the Supreme Court, they took advantage of the soft application of the regulations—Quebec’s Office of Consumers Protection barely enforced the new regulations because they feared that the legislation would be deemed unconstitutional. This soft application of the Québec legislation was actually profitable for advertisers, allowing them to “forget about” the regulations.

Canadian toy manufacturer Irwin Toys challenged the constitutionality of the new law in court, arguing that it denied commercial freedom of speech. Corporate predators can afford expensive lawyers and powerful public-relations experts who excel at portraying their industry as the victim. The legal fight lasted until 1989, ending with the final decision of the Supreme Court of Canada. The court rejected the arguments of Irwin Toys for two major reasons:

  • First, children are vulnerable to advertising until the age of 13.
  • Second, Québec’s legislation did not ban all ads promoting toys for children, but only those targeting kids. Irwin Toys could still advertise its toys to parents.

The limit to freedom of speech was therefore considered reasonable by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Meanwhile, south of the border
In the early 1980s, President Reagan appointed Mark S. Fowler as the new chairman for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). According to Martin Goodman, blogger at Animation World Network, “Fowler championed market forces as the determinant of broadcasting content, and thus oversaw the abolition of every advertising regulation that had served as a guide for broadcasters.”  In 1984, under Fowler’s leadership, the FCC did away with children’s protection from the entertainment and marketing industries.

Toy companies adopted several strategies in order to ensure success and estimable profits [from deregulation]. In most cases the toy was developed first and the animated program was then used to promote the line of toys. … Most of the shows were syndicated, meaning that they could be aired during blocks of time outside of Saturday morning, the traditional hours of children’s programming. Shows were ordered by the block rather than by the season via a strategy known as strip syndication. A 65-episode series was quite common, with new installments aired daily; after all, this was advertising, not entertainment.

After the FCC took child protection “obstacles” out of their way, predators could target kids like never before and their appetite for children’s brain-time exploded. 
Goodman continues:

my little ponyThe impact of deregulation on children’s programming was astounding. Cultural historian Tom Englehardt noted that between 1984 and 1985 cartoons featuring licensed characters increased by some 300%. By the end of 1985 there were more than 40 animated series running concurrently with licensed products and active marketing campaigns. Some shows … were among the most-watched animated shows in television history. Other properties … are still selling products at a steady pace 27 years later. Millions of action figures found their way into the hands of young boys, but the lucrative market for little girls was not ignored.he-man

Deregulation also allowed massive increase of violence in TV programs for kids. In 1984, the International Coalition Against Violent Entertainment tabulated acts of violence in kids’ TV series: GI Joe carried 84 per hour, Transformers 81.

In 1988, a vast majority in the House of Representatives (328-78) voted to put limits on deregulation by the FCC, and the Senate endorsed this decision. To prevent this from being implemented, President Ronald Reagan exercised his veto.

What motivated the President of the United States to support the FCC’s deregulation of TV programs for kids? They both considered that freedom of expression of marketers is “natural,” but protecting children from child abusers in the marketing industry is not. Corporate advocates consider that no government should interfere with the market’s rule, despite thousands of studies showing damages to children’s physical and mental health. In the 1980s, these predators seemed to have good connections at the top.

Making ads to kids illegal, benefits evaluated
In April 2011, researchers from University of British Columbia and the University of Illinois published the conclusions of their study, the first of its kind, about the potential benefits of limiting the influence of marketers in a report titled “Fast-Food Consumption and the Ban on Advertising Targeting Children: The Quebec Experience”:

Amid growing concerns about childhood obesity and the associated health risks, several countries are considering banning fast food advertising targeting children. … Using household expenditure survey data from 1984 to 1992, authors examine whether expenditure on fast food is lower in those groups affected by the ban than in those that are not. … [T]he ban’s effectiveness is [due to] the decrease in purchase propensity by 13% per week. Overall, the authors estimate that the ban reduced fast-food consumption by US$88 million per year. The study suggests that advertising bans can be effective provided media markets do not overlap.

Nine months after the study was made public…

baylisIn January 2012, nine months after initial publication of this research by the American Marketing Association, the Department of Education at the University of Illinois published a blog post featuring a discussion with researcher Kathy Baylis, co-author of the study:

“Our research indicates that this might be the way to go. The folks on the other side of the debate are always saying: ‘Don’t go down that road. It’s a dead-end. Absolute bans don’t work and a voluntary approach to self-regulation is better.’ Well, that’s not true, and this research is more ammunition for the FCC.”

Tirtha Dhar, co-author

Tirtha Dhar, co-author

Although the advertising lobby would like to deny that advertising to kids works, Kathy Baylis notes that about $11 billion per year is spent on advertising aimed at that audience.

Fourteen months after… 
In June 2012, 14 months after publication of the study, the website Care2 published another article about the results, “Advertising Bans Work: Quebec Has Lowest Childhood Obesity Rate”:

The province of Quebec in Canada has the lowest childhood obesity rates in the country despite having one of the most sedentary lifestyles. How is that possible? … Quebec’s 32 year ban on advertising to children led to an estimated:

  • US$88 million annual reduction in expenditures on fast food.
  • 13.4 billion to 18.4 billion fewer fast food calories being consumed per year.

…[P]atterns established in childhood carried into adulthood, with French speaking young adults in Quebec being 38% less likely to purchase fast food than French speaking young adults in Ontario (where there is no advertising ban).

Fifteen months after… 
MusemecheThe first article about the study appeared in Big Media in July 2012, when Dr. Catherine Musemeche wrote the following in Ban on Advertising to Children Linked to Lower Obesity Rates, a blog post published on The New York Times website:

With what’s being thrown at kids through media exposure these days, I’m all in with an environment that seeks to filter some of it. As a doctor who treats children, many of whom are overweight or obese, I don’t think there can be much doubt that child-directed advertising is fueling the obesity epidemic. … [B]anning fast-food advertising to children may actually curtail obesity. …

While the rest of Canada has been experiencing the same explosion in childhood obesity seen here in the U.S., Quebec has the lowest obesity rate in Canada.

Meanwhile, in the face of our own raging obesity epidemic in the U.S., child-directed advertising of unhealthful food continues unabated. The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity has just released a 2012 report showing that little has changed since 2009, even though the cereal industry claims to have reduced advertising to children.

Twenty-four months after… 
edupax fighting adsIn July 2013, two years after publication of the University of British Columbia/University of Illinois study, the Communication Initiative Network posted an article about the lack of information and the need for education about the benefits of legislation to ban advertising that targets children:

Information about the benefits of banning ads targeting kids needs to be circulated. Media educators, law educators, health educators, students in education or health, parents and child rights activists should consider reading the articles below, forwarding them to their contacts, posting them on their websites, giving them to their students for discussion or debate. The conclusions of this study represent a huge victory for all children in North America and the world. …

Media Education is a powerful tool to give knowledge and power to students, parents, and teachers. … [Such knowledge] can fuel activism and trigger action in other provinces of Canada and inspire decision makers in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. What educators need is expertise and willingness to trigger people’s curiosity, feed their appetite for freedom, and help them getting organized for action.

Big Media has barely touched this topic. There has been almost no coverage about, or scrutiny of, the benefits of banning marketing to children, and almost none about this joint study by Canadian and U.S. researchers. Should we conclude that corporate predators have connections with industries that control public information?

baby wants something done about advertisingWhen will the Canadian and U.S. governments dare to give priority to children’s health and regulate predatory strategies used by marketers? Should we consider the cost of obesity so low as to not merit action?

Action is necessary, and the sooner, the better. Parents, researchers, educators, and citizens need to see that the time has come for decision-makers in North America to take side with the health of future generations and prevent the increase of cost for public health.

Jacques Brodeur is the founder of Edupax and a veteran media educator. He is also a physical and health educator, freedom of information activist, founding member of the Action Coalition for Media Education, and creator of the 10-Day Screen-Free Challenge.

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