Several facts evidence the fact that the ability of a child to understand an advertising message is more limited than that of an adult. Some facts that draw attention to this are: on average, an American child may view about 40,000 commercials in a year (Strasburger, 2007), the influence of brand loyalty begins as early as two years and at the age of three, children can already recognize brand logos (Fischer, 1991) This is earlier than when most children have leant to read.. Comstock reports that young children are not able to differentiate between TV programs and advertisements. Most young children do not realize that, commercials are trying to sell something (Comstock, 1991).
This knowledge has influenced advertising such that, the focus of advertising has changed from adults to children. There have been increases in the amount spent on advertising aimed at young children. Initially, most advertising was directed at adults but nowadays advertising of both ‘adult’ products and children’s products are directed at children, since children directly and indirectly influence household spending.
There is an increase in access to communication technology. This paired with a busy life schedule makes it difficult for parents to control the amount of advertising children are exposed to. In Australia, in about one in four homes, children have their own television sets (Powell and Zuel, 2005). Independent viewing of television is more common than before, making parental control more difficult. The spending power of children has also increased, with children having more money of their own to spend and being able to nag their parents into spending. Powell and Zuel report an average of around $ 31 available for spending each week by children below 18 years. As a result, children have been put in a position where they are making purchasing decisions more often.
Advertisers have made marketing tools that go beyond the television and spread to other aspects of children’s lives in a bid to take advantage of the children’s innocence. Nowadays there are versions of adult magazines such as Sports Illustrated for kids, which carry advertisements for minivans, introduction of promotional toys that are associated with cartoons, TV shows and films, which promote brand loyalty. To catch the attention of children, advertisers have even moved to schools where they are taking advantage of lack of funds in schools, in return for advertising access to children, the advertisers make up for the budget shortfalls and offer cash or products. Commercials are also very many in schools, further influencing the child’s desire to get an advertised product. The presence in school increases the credibility of these advertisements to children. (www.mediafamily.org).
Advertising directed at children is working as Strasburger reports those children who watch television a lot, would like to see more toys in adverts and will generally eat more advertisement food those who do not watch as much television (Strasburger, 2002).
Advertising to children brings up many issues of concern. Some of these issues are, fairness in advertising to young children who do not fully understand the intention of the advertiser, whether the type of product aimed at children are products that children should be buying, the encouragement of an attitude of materialism in children through advertising and the causation of family disputes by children as a result of children pestering parents to buy advertised goods. There is also the argument that advertisement does provide a misrepresentation of the world, providing a misleading image of the world to a child (Gunter, Gates, and Blades,). These concerns are valid as observed by Australian professor, Richard Mizerli that the ‘cognitive structures of young children are beginning to form and they are vulnerable to external influences’ A study showed that children watching athletes in television thought athletes in the commercials were promoting themselves and not the product, they thought children in commercials were real, not paid actors and many times they confused advertisements with news items (Beder, 1998)
These issues point to the fact that advertising to children cannot go unregulated. The cause of disagreement is how strict the regulation should be and how the regulation will apply in today’s global market across a variety of countries and cultures. Children may also need education about advertising (Ganter et al).
Advertising exploits children by persuading them to buy things that they do not need and to spend money that they do not have. By placing emphasis on branded products, adverts are providing focus on products and aspiration to particular lifestyles.
Label emphasis takes advantage of the fact that children have the ability to tell apart brands and logos before they develop ability to read. (Gaunter et al)
Pestering power is enhanced by commercials that cause children to desire certain products. This means that children will pester their parents or another adult to buy a product for them during a shopping trip or start making demands in advance of holidays such as Christmas and birthdays events. (Gaunter et al). Generally, parents spend more when shopping with children than when shopping alone. Another impact of advertising is that it may influence children to see social and religious events in purely commercial times.
The product range for goods advertising to children is small with toys and food forming the greater percentage of advertised products. Food commercials are a major issue of concern because of the nature of the foods advertised. These foods have high sugar and fat contents making them unhealthy foods. A typical child’s meal in a commercial consists of a ‘cheeseburger, a fizzy drink, French fries and a toy’ (Ganter et al). This definitely leads to poor health and compromises the well being of the child if one considers that on average children in Australia spend a quarter of their leisure time watching television (Powell and Zuel, 1993). After spending so much time doing a passive activity the children later go on to feed on high fat foods that increase their chances of becoming obese. There needs to be regulation concerning foods advertisement to children especially because of the relationship between the foods advertised and health implication on weight and teeth.
A common tactic used by advertisers is to sell food with low nutritional value to children using animated characters such as Spiderman the Flintstones. This makes it hard for children to decipher when the advertisement started and the entertainment show ended. In most situations, the breakfast cereals intentionally depict the unhealthy food as healthy cereal by saying that it is part of a balanced breakfast. The children after the advertisement will more likely remember the cereals and forget the fruits, milk that accompanied the breakfast since the cereals formed the greater focus of the advertisement. Most of these children do not even fully understand the concept of a balance breakfast and as far as they are concerned, the cartoon characters are credible sources of information and for them the cereals filled with high sugar content form a healthy breakfast. (Johnson and Gannon)
Briefly, corporate advertising misguides children by portraying high salt sugar and fatty foods as healthy foods with total disregard of the fact that these foods cause health problems among them being tooth decay, obesity, increased cholesterol levels and precipitation of diabetes in those with a genetic predisposition hypertension. All these contribute to the early onset of health problems and premature demise of the nation’s children.
Regulations concerning advertisement to children are in the form of rules and guidelines about the advertising schedule and the content of commercials. Restrictions apply to the specific products being presented at times when children are viewing in large numbers for example commercials of alcohol and cigarettes being presented on a Saturday morning or late afternoon after school. Restriction of contents prohibits commercials of some products and prohibits including some behaviors in commercials. (Ganter et al, 2005).
The regulations through present, have not been very effective because they are not comprehensive enough, there is no provision for marketing to children tied to television advertising that goes beyond the television commercial. In addition, it is important to consider that the television adverts are not restricted to sport advertisement between programs or in the program. Children are the target group of sponsorship, children’s clubs and special competition. Advertisers feature cartoons and characters from television shows in commercials and place these advertisements in programs about the same characters, making it difficult to distinguish between programming and advertising. This takes advantage of the child’s liking for the character while persuading the child, to buy the product endorsed by the character. (Kunkel, 1990).
In Australia, the Children’s Television Standards (CTS) took effect in January 1990. It tries to balance ‘concerns of the public that the needs of children are met, the child’s lack of earning capacity and the fact that commercial television relies upon advertising for revenues’. (Australian Communications and Media Authority, AUCMA, 2007). The need for this balance is demonstrated by the present situation where lobby groups such as Parents Jury, Coalition Against Food Advertising to Children and Young Media Australia have been campaigning for a total ban on food commercials during children’s television. The AANA, representing the interests of advisers, marketers and the media in self-regulation and freedom of speech argues that ‘children need the exposure to advertising so that they can learn to discriminate’, in today’s world of very competitive markets. The advertising industry further argues that should restrictions demand tighter the future of children’s TV is at risk. (Canning, 2007)
A paper by Dr. Denniss suggests amendment to the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill (No.1) 2005 that would ban food commercial during children’s television. Manufacturer’s advertisers and television stations will no doubt oppose this but he argues that the interests of the children should be put above those of industries. (Denniss, 2006).
Denniss further reports that around 86% of 1600 Australians felt that there was need for more restrictions on children advertising. Medical experts have expressed similar sentiments especially with regard to the issue of childhood obesity that is a growing problem in Australia.
Presently Australia’s regulatory system does not empower regulatory bodies to control fast food commercials to children, hence the call for tighter regulations from the public and medical professionals. The CTS 2005 are similar to the old standards. Those directed at advertising include, prohibition against broadcasting more than 13 minutes per hour of advertising during children’s television, ban on prizes offered during children viewing times and ban on food commercials that have incorrect nutritional information about the product (Communications Act 2003, Broadcasting Act 1996). These restrictions are generally not strong enough and advertising bodies and the government officials have dismissed the issue as though the concern it is raising is unwarranted.
The AANA is the body responsible for self-regulation and its code repeats most of what is in the obligations of the Communications Act states that advertisement to children for food and beverages should not encourage an inactive lifestyle and unhealthy eating or drinking habits and they must not contain incorrect nutritional information (AANA 2005). These words are not strong enough to provide guidance on what should be advertised or banned.
The advertisers and regulatory bodies are under pressure to reduce advertising to children by the public on one hand and on the other hand, there is the pressure from manufacturers to have their product marketed on children’s television. Advertisers while desiring to take advantage of the innocence of children of the nag factor do so at their own peril since the regulatory bodies will not allow them to do so freely. The regulatory bodies however cannot apply too much pressure on the advertisers since most television stations and manufacturers get their revenues depending on the success of advertisement.
The well-being of children cannot and should not be compromised for profits. The AANA has demonstrated regard for children’s well-being by pointing out that a major confectionary company had breached industry code on children’ advertising this led to the closure of the company’s website, Kraft no longer uses the teddy bear that was used as a promotion tool for its peanuts butter (Egan, 2007)
These examples illustrate the importance and effectiveness though in most cases the public and medical experts feel that more legislation is necessary to enhance regulation. The AANA predictably feels differently and is keen on maintaining responsible self-regulation in children advertising so that the companies can stay in business and continue to make profits. The main issue in addressing this problem is how to keep a balance between children’s interest and business interests. There should be a greater leaning towards more responsible advertising by advertisers, manufacturers and television studios to safeguard children’s wellbeing.
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