• The Children's Crusade Grinds On
  • June 23, 2004
  • Law Firm: Reed Smith LLP - Pittsburgh Office
  • The Center for Digital Democracy's Executive Director Jeffrey Chester has written a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) urging it to subpoena research documents and other evidence from marketers and marketing agencies, research, and audience measurement firms that demonstrate the underlying "nature" of the techniques used to market to children and teens by digital technology advertisers. Chester claimed that merging of advertising and promotions into online content poses a threat to younger generations: "The ability of a child or teen to comprehend whether and how they are being marketed to, is fundamentally challenged by the very characteristics of the interactive digital environment, in which the 'word from our sponsor' -- no longer segregated in discrete 30- and 60-second segments -- is woven into the very media fabric." He also stated that "aggressive marketing practices" now used exceed the limits of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA). Under the rules of COPPA, marketers are prohibited from engaging in deceptive marketing practices when targeting children.

    Chester raises the sinister specter of Orwellian mind control: "How this marketing affects such critical developmental issues as cognition/brain development identity formation and the emotional system must be well understood prior to its use on the child-to-teen audience."

    Sensibly, the FTC seems not to be buying into it: "The agency is not going to ban free speech that is not misleading," policy planning director Mr. Zywicki said during a panel discussion yesterday at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. The discussion took place as Britain, Ireland, New Zealand and Greece consider prohibiting food advertising aimed at children, following similar bans in Quebec and Sweden. Mr. Zywicki said no studies have shown a clear correlation between the number of food ads children see on television and rising obesity rates in Americans.

    Michael Wood, vice president of research firm Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU), disagrees with Chester, and points out that TRU has never received any complaints about the online marketing practices of companies that target teens and children. "No one has ever come to us, even from a parent perspective, with any horror stories," he says, adding, "There haven't been any incidents at all." Another critic of Chester, Jeff Lanctot, VP media for interactive agency AvenueA, points out that for kids under 13, data collection, email campaigns, and deceptive marketing practices are effectively off-limits. "We haven't found [COPPA] unmanageable, and we've never had any problem with it," he says.

    Across the pond, at the British Medical Association's (BMA) Annual Conference of Public Health Medicine, a call was made to the government to ban so-called "junk food" from being advertised to youngsters. The BMA also condemned advertising campaigns in which sport stars endorse such products. The doctors recommended that the government ban television advertising of what it termed unhealthy foods on all children-oriented stations. Dr. Peter Tiplady, chair of the BMA's Public Health Committee, said: "It's easy to say that obesity is a matter of personal choice but often that's not true for children. They are being bombarded with adverts for products that are extremely bad for their health. Food manufacturers are deliberately targeting them by using sports personalities to send out the message that junk food and fizzy drinks will make them more popular." Chair of the conference, Dr. Kailash Agrawal, added: "Childhood obesity is a public health time bomb. If the government ignores it, we will see huge increases in diabetes, strokes, cancer and heart disease -- obesity has the potential to cause the same devastation as smoking." In a related event, a Scottish politician has called for a ban by the Scottish Parliament on the sale of "fizzy drinks" from vending machines in schools, and end the advertising of junk food for children.

    Why This Matters: The unsupported allegations about children and advertising are continuing unabated despite the lack of evidence about their harm: Children are actually seeing fewer food and restaurant ads on TV. American children saw about 5,038 television commercials last year, 871 fewer than the 5,909 commercials viewed in 1994, said Daniel Jaffe, executive vice president for the Association of National Advertisers. Even the 2001 health report by former Surgeon General David Satcher, which first labeled obesity an epidemic, did not mention any harmful effects of food advertising. Significantly, when the FTC attempted to ban such advertising in the 1970s, Congress found that the ban would violate the Constitution.