POV: It Pays to Consider the Kids

WASHINGTON Nobody wants a national nanny. Hands off the First Amendment. What’s next, aTwinkie tax?

This sounds familiar because these are the main arguments the ad industry and media content providers spout the moment anyone suggests placing curbs on the number of ads kids see, or the amount of sex and violence they watch in any medium. For once, I would like to hear these industries say, “Look, we don’t really care about the effect we have on kids. What matters is getting kids to want our products and our content.” At least that would be more honest.

Now, the Washington industry lobbyists who spin this issue for a living just got a new gift from an unlikely source. A new Kaiser Family Foundation Kaiser Family Foundation survey says parents are gaining control over what their kids watch, at least when those children are at home. In a national survey of parents of children ages 2-17 released June 19, 65 percent say they “closely” monitor their children’s media use, while only 18 percent say they “should do more.”

“This flies in the face of what we expected to find,” says Vicky Rideout, vp and director of Kaiser’s Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health. “We have this perception of parents feeling overwhelmed and a little behind with the technology.”

Just 10 percent of parents named food advertising as the issue that concerns them the most, while only 6 percent said the same for erectile dysfunction ads. Ads for toys, closely followed by messages promoting videogames, topped their list of concerns, according to the Kaiser survey.

Game over. Why fret about the tots? Parents have the media under control so companies should march on showering kids with ads for sugary cereals like Froot Loops and flooding the airwaves with sex and violence, right? Thankfully, some companies are taking a smarter, more strategic approach.

The Kaiser survey comes a week after the Kellogg Company said it would stop marketing products to children under 12 unless the foods meet certain dietary guidelines for salt, sugar, fat and calories. Watch out Toucan Sam.

The two public advocacy groups—The Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood—who threatened to sue Kellogg and Viacom last year over their advertising practices to kids should claim victory in the Kellogg case. (No word yet from Viacom.) But it’s hard to believe that this threat was the only factor in Kellogg’s decision.

Consumers want healthier foods for themselves and their children. Just look at the success of Whole Foods if you doubt that claim. Food and beverage companies stand to reap huge profits if they give the public what it wants.

Kellogg follows Kraft, which set nutrition standards for foods advertised to 6 to 11 year olds, in 2005. Out went ads for Kool-Aid, Oreo cookies and Lunchables.

This business approach also makes for good public relations, which matters more than ever given the mounting threats in the obesity wars. In April, the Federal Trade Commission said it would subpoena 44 “major” food, beverage and chain restaurants about their marketing practices to kids. That same month, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin asking if Martin would support a rulemaking to “limit or eliminate the amount of food advertisements on television viewed by children.”

In December, a policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics asked Congress to limit ads during children’s programming to no more than six minutes per hour, which would decrease the current amount by 50 percent.

Children see more than 40,000 ads a year on TV alone. Kaiser, in a separate study, found that food is the number one product advertised to kids. Of that, 34 percent is for candy or snacks, 28 percent for cereal and 10 percent for fast food.

When it comes to programming, why is it considered acceptable for the networks to slip in ever more sex and violence into shows with impunity?

Ever heard of ratings creep? A 2004 Harvard School of Public Health study quantified how a movie rated PG (“Parental guidance suggested”) or PG-13 (“Parents strongly cautioned”) has more sexual and violent content than a similarly rated movie in the past. One argument has been societal standards change over time. A second, more disturbing explanation, is called desensitization.

Has a parent’s tolerance for sex and violence increased because they see more of it? “You’re damn right it has,” says Victor Strasburger, a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and an author of the American Academy of Pediatrics statement on advertising in children’s programming. “As people hear things more often, they become desensitized.”

Strasburger believes that parents are fooling themselves if they think they have a firm grip on the amount of media in their children’s lives. “Parents think the media affects everyone else but themselves,” he says. “Parents think they are controlling the media and children say they are not.”

Other food marketers should follow Kellogg and Kraft’s examples. There’s 10 other marketers in an industry-formed group called the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. They are expected to announce responsible marketing pledges July 18 at a government forum addressing the childhood obesity issue. Marketers like General Mills, Hershey and McDonald’s have already agreed to pledge half of their TV, print, radio and Internet marketing to children under 12 to “promoting healthy dietary choices and healthy lifestyles.”

With Kellogg’s move calling into question an estimated $200 million in ad spending alone, shouldn’t networks pay more attention to children in general? If they can’t do it for the greater good, they will be forced to step up if only to protect their wallets.