Advertising to children
Advertising to children is the act of marketing or advertising products or services to children, as defined by national legislation and advertising standards. It is often the subject of debate, relating to the alleged influence on children’s consumption. Laws concerning such advertisements have largely evolved in recent years. In most countries, advertising for children is framed by a mix of legislation and advertising self-regulation.
Scope and form
Advertising to children can take place on traditional media – television, radio and print – as well as new media (internet and other electronic media). Packaging, in-store advertising, event sponsorship, and promotions can also be used.
UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – defines early childhood as ages 0–8 years. For the purposes of advertising law, the definition of a child varies from one jurisdiction to another. However, the age of 12 is commonly used as a cut-off point. This cut off point is on the close enough basis of the widespread academic view that by age 12 children have developed their behaviour as consumers, can effectively recognise advertising and are able to adopt critical attitudes towards it.
According to the United States Federal Trade Commission, food and beverage companies (44 companies reporting to the FTC) in the U.S. spent approximately $1.6 billion in 2006 to promote their products and services to children.
Children are arguably the most vulnerable consumers affected by directed advertising. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average child sees more than 20,000 commercials a year in the United States. While this number is not significantly different from the number of commercials that adults are exposed to, children are affected more negatively than adults are. Unlike adults, children cannot be expected to have the proper rational abilities to operate in their own self interests without being unfairly taken advantage of by advertisements. Research done by the American Psychological Association shows that children under the age of are mentally incapable of viewing and interpreting television advertisements with a critical eye. According to the APA, children are more prone to accepting advertisements as truthful, accurate, and unbiased than adults are. Adults are able to recognize that the purpose of advertising is to persuade. Children under the age of 6 have difficulties separating commercials from regular television programming. Thus, these children are more susceptible to being hoodwinked by commercials into craving junk food, having low self-esteem, and developing bad habits.
The European Union also has framework legislation in place which sets down minimum provisions on advertising to children for its 27 member states. The EU Audiovisual Media Services Directive, due to replace the Television Without Frontiers Directive in all member states by the end of 2009, sets out several EU-wide rules on advertising and children:
Advertising shall not cause moral or physical detriment to minors, and shall therefore comply with the following criteria for their protection:
- a. it shall not directly exhort minors to buy a product or a service by exploiting their inexperience or credulity;
- b. it shall not directly encourage minors to persuade their parents or others to purchase the goods or services being advertised;
- c. it shall not exploit the special trust minors place in parents, teachers or other persons;
- d. it shall not unreasonably show minors in dangerous situations
- e. Children’s programs may only be interrupted if the scheduled duration is longer than 30 minutes
- f. Product placement is not allowed in children’s programs.
- g. The Member States and the Commission should encourage audiovisual media service providers to develop codes of conduct regarding the advertising of certain foods in children’s programs.
Note that criterion (b) explicitly outlaws appeals to "pester power".
In the United States the Federal Trade Commission studied the issue of advertising to children in the 1970s but decided against regulation.
In many countries worldwide, advertising is also governed by self-regulatory codes of conduct. Advertisers, advertising agencies and the media agree on a code of advertising standards – a set of ethical and behavioural rules they commit to respecting – which is enforced by a Self-regulatory organization, often an independent industry-funded body, responsible for drafting, amending and enforcing the code. Self-regulatory organizations for advertising are increasingly following the best practice model agreed with regulators and consumer and public health groups in Europe. At a minimum, the general aim of self-regulatory codes is to ensure that any advertising is 'legal, decent, honest and truthful', but in most countries detailed rules are in place for different advertising techniques and sectors.
Advertising self-regulation is built on different levels. On a global level, the International Chamber of Commerce has drafted a global code on marketing communications. All forms of marketing communications worldwide must conform to the ICC Consolidated Code on Advertising and Marketing. The code includes a specific section, detailing the special care needed when communicating with children.
Since 2006, a global code of practice on food marketing communications is also in place. The Framework for Responsible Food and Beverage Marketing Communications of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) sets down global requirements for food and beverage marketing communications on all media, including the Internet. Key provisions include: the need for substantiation for claims or health benefits; no encouragement of excess consumption; no representation of snacks as meals; no undermining of healthy lifestyle messages; no undermining of the role of parents.
These codes provide a minimum requirement for marketing communications worldwide. National self-regulatory codes, based on the ICC codes, are established, policed and enforced by local Self-Regulatory Organisations (SROs) and industry in over 100 countries and apply to a range of media, increasingly also including digital marketing communications. The ICC and national codes are reviewed regularly to ensure that they remain relevant to local, cultural and consumer concerns and that they promote best practice. The ICC Framework is applicable globally but is a minimum standard designed to be adapted and transposed into SR codes at national level. Many countries have implemented SR provisions that use the ICC Framework as a basis, but go further in several respects, depending on local considerations. Examples include Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Ireland, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, the UK and the USA.
In the United States the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) established in 1974 by the National Advertising Review Council (NARC) runs a self-regulatory program that includes a prescreening service for advertisers to ensure they are in compliance with COPPA and the CARU guidelines.
In addition to industry-wide self-regulation, individual companies and industry sectors have introduced a wide range of additional provisions relating to marketing communications directed at children. For example, most multinational food and beverage companies have developed their own policies on food and beverage marketing communications to children, and have announced the joint implementation of these individual commitments.
In July 2007, 10 of these companies (now 13) announced a common pledge in the US – the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, mirroring a similar initiative by 15 companies in Canada – the Canadian Children’s Food & Beverage Advertising Initiative; and followed by 11 companies in Europe with the EU Pledge. Under these initiatives, participating companies will cease advertising to children under 12, other than products that meet specific nutritional guidelines, based on international scientific recommendations. A similar Pledge programme was launched by leading food companied in Thailand in May 2008 and in Australia in mid-2009.
Media literacy is a relatively new discipline, aimed at teaching individuals and children in particular to understand and use the media to their advantage. Media literacy is increasingly recognised by governments and international organisations such as the European Union and the World Health Organisation as a key tool to help children understand and deal with today’s complex media environment. Media literacy programs are based around the need to “make children engage in media rather than solely consume it”.
MediaSmart is an established media literacy education program focused on advertising. Launched in November 2002, MediaSmart is a non-profit media literacy program for school children aged 6 to 11 years old. MediaSmart develops and provides, free of charge and on request, educational materials to primary schools that teach children to think critically about advertising in the context of their daily lives. MediaSmart materials use real examples of advertising to teach core media literacy skills. MediaSmart is funded by the advertising business in the UK and is supported by the UK government and EU institutions. Since 2002, MediaSmart has been launched in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Portugal and Hungary.
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