Regulating advertising to children

Restricting advertising aimed at children isn’t censorship, and liberals should be for it.

If in fact the New Republic piece Jane Galt links to calls for the Democrats to embrace “regulation” (i.e., censorship) of mass-media content as a way of appealing to “family values,” I’m inclinded to agree with Jane that it would be a bad idea. (Since I refuse to subsidize Martin Peretz’s ego-trip, which has been so destructive to the Democratic Party, I don’t know how accurately Jane’s summary reflects the underlying piece.)

Advertising, though — especially advertising directed to children, and especially on what are still theoretically the public airwaves (and through the cable lines operated under publicly-enforced grants of monopoly rights) — strikes me as presenting an utterly different set of questions.

Persuading eight-year-olds to demand unhealthy food and expensive athletic shoes, thus making those items staples of second-grade culture, is a nasty trick to play on the parents of those eight-year-olds. Indeed, it is nothing less than a commercial assault on the natural hierarchy of the family, where the parents give instruction to the children rather than vice versa.

It’s not a question, it seems to me, of whether some particular pitch for sugared cereal is “deceptive” and therefore an “unfair trade practice.” It’s a question of who ought to have control over what messages children are exposed to. Commercial speech directed to children is simply not on a par with the content of newspaper editorials, or even with the content of soap operas, in terms of either First Amendment jurisprudence or of the underlying policy considerations.

Television is, for better or for worse (I’m convinced it’s very much for worse, but conviction doesn’t make me right) a central part of the lives of American children. Children who do not watch television, or watch only the programs you and I might like them to watch — children, in particular, who never watch advertising-supported television — are cut off from the culture of their peers, which is an uncomfortable and otherwise disadvantageous position. It is therefore wrong to argue that advertisers should be allowed to put on whatever ads they want as long as parents have the right to turn off the set.

Parents shouldn’t have to decide to cut their children off from the culture of their peers in order to protect them from being sold various forms of junk, or be put in the position of being the bad guys as they attempt to police their children’s television-watching.

I see in today’s Wall Street Journal that the big food-marketing companies have banded together to defend their First Amendment rights to rot the teeth and clog the arteries of America’s children. They’re planning an assault on the idea that food advertising leads directly to obesity (which after all it probaby doesn’t; the causal links are likely complicated and subtle). And I see that Kennedy and Harkin are the authors of the bills the new lobby is dedicated to fighting.

Excellent! To paraphrase In the Gen. Grant, liberals should be prepared to fight it out along those lines no matter how long it takes. To be on the side of the parents (and of the actual interests of the children) against commercial seduction strikes me as obviously good morals, good policy, and good politics.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

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  1. TV ads and parental responsiblity

    Mark Kleiman has a post in which he argues that television adversiting aimed at children should be regulated. It's not a question, it seems to me, of whether some particular pitch for sugared cereal is "deceptive" and therefore an "unfair…

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