Îhe snap and crackle of television advertising aimed at young children may be about to go pop. Last week in Washington, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) started a month of hearings which are expected to determine whether it will ban all ads aimed at under-8’s, prohibit only sugàred cereal commercials or force junk food and cereal manufacturers to include nutritional information in their sales pitch. More than 130 witnesses—many of whom have been warring with the advertisers for years—will testify before the commission rules this summer.
The stakes are high. More than $600 million is spent each year on child-oriented advertising and manufacturers’ profits are many times that amount. There are more than 33 million children under 12 in the U.S., each of whom watches about 25 hours of television a week on average. The networks run 8.5 minutes of advertising every hour on Saturday morning and it is estimated that young children are bombarded with about 20,000 commercials a year.
Opponents of the commercials say that most are “unfair and deceptive.” One of the first to testify, Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children’s Television and a longtime crusader, said that children under 12 were unable to make reasonable consumer decisions and it was “unrealistic to expect selfregulation to cure the abuses.” Another witness, Robert Choate, head of the Council on Children, Media and Merchandising, recalled complaints that children cannot distinguish between cartoon shows and cartoon ads, and suggested that the ads should be distinguished by a border on TV screens.
So far, in an 18-month campaign, candy, cereal and toy advertisers have spent an estimated $15 million in legal and public relations fees to persuade people that the government should “not become the nation’s nanny.” But while they have won small points during the hearings—a nutritionist conceded that it would be difficult to trace significant tooth decay to eating a single bowl of sugared cereal—their real success has been in the legal manoeuvring and in gaining support from anti-regulation friends on Capitol Hill. So far they have managed to get FTC Chairman Michael Pertschuk disqualified from the proceedings because of his well-known views against the ads, and they are lobbying for a bill that would allow Congress to veto the FTC’s decision.
For the moment, however, their opponents at least have the ear of the FTC. The hearing supervisor, Judge Morton Needleman, said that while he is not convinced all such ads should be banned, he might favor some limits on ads aimed at twoto seven-year-olds. What’s more, at least one TV network has made an attempt to discipline itself. ABC recently announced that it will begin cutting children’s advertising by 20 per cent next year. That means one less minute per hour of what even a cereal company executive called “the frequency, the blatancy and often the sheer idiocy of so many of the commercials on a typical Saturday morning.”
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