I started my career in mainstream advertising. We did some great creative for some terrible clients. I was selling candy and junk food to kids as an obesity epidemic ravaged a generation.
Well, I left that profitable world behind when I founded my own advertising and design firm. We don't do kidvertising.
But it's no wonder advertisers focus so heavily on kids. In many ways they're the gateway to big profits. Kids spend billions of dollars themselves but the real gold mine is "kidfluence." Marketers figure targeting kids is the best way to a parent's wallet, especially mom's. The mother-child "superconsumer" is responsible for up to $1-trillion in spending in North America.
In fact, it's common knowledge within the advertising world that marketing to kids is critical: they're far more impressionable – gullible is probably the better word – than teens and adults, and getting them to develop a lifelong relationship with a product is highly lucrative. Experts suggest a "cradle-to-grave" relationship with a customer is extremely fruitful.
Kids are also sitting ducks. Their psychological defenses aren't fully developed. Research is clear that kids under four years old can't distinguish between ads and the TV programming itself: it's all part of the same entertainment. The ability to understand persuasive intent grows over time, and the U.S Institute of Medicine suggests that kids under eight haven't fully formed an appreciation for a message's bias and persuasive intent.
Indeed, the Broadcast Code of Advertising to Children itself notes, "children of pre-school age often are unable to distinguish between program content and advertisements." The Institute of Medicine stressed it may take longer for kids to develop cognitive defenses to ads because marketers spend so much time trying to blur the lines between content and persuasion.
Quebec, recognizing the harms of advertising to kids, banned kidvertising to anyone under thirteen three decades ago.
The industry then challenged the provincial law on grounds relating to free speech. Fortunately, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1989 that the ad ban was justifiable because "children are not as equipped as adults to evaluate the persuasive force of advertising".
In other words, the Supreme Court itself recognizes the harms of kidvertising and that it's unfair to prey on an impressionable population. The Court went on to write, "advertising directed at young children is per se manipulative."
Advertising to kids is unfairly manipulative. It's therefore unethical. Period.
Norway and Sweden also banned advertising to kids in the early 1990s. The United Kingdom banned junk-food ads to kids in 2007.
It's past time for a serious conversation about banning kidvertising across Canada.
In Ontario, the Ministry of Health is talking about banning junk-food ads, as part of a broader focus on children's health.
A 2008 analysis suggests a ban on TV fast-food ads alone would help reduce obesity by up to 18 per cent amongst three to eleven year olds.
But, of course, reducing the rate of childhood obesity is a secondary benefit to banning kidvertising: if we've established the practice to be unethical, that's reason enough to ban it. It isn't fair to target consumers who can't say no.
(On the other hand, if reducing obesity is your goal, a 1999 World Bank study on tobacco ad bans is instructive: partial ad bans had little or no effect, while a comprehensive ban on cigarette advertising actually reduced smoking. A full ban on kidvertising, likewise, is the way to go.)
Plus, in the past decade, advertising has become much more persuasive and pervasive – ads today are designed to play on our psychology and even careful parents can't protect their kids from advertising's prevalence in our lives. Between the internet and TV, kids are bombarded with ads.
Corporations and ad execs won't police themselves. The gaping holes in voluntary commitments are massive. The industry is just too competitive and the pressure to sell a product is the over-riding concern. Advertisers will always find loopholes, even to get around a ban on ads for junk food.
Government needs to step up to the plate to protect kids in the most comprehensive, effective way possible.
Of course, industry will protest any action – "an ad ban will kill jobs," "it'll kill children's TV," "we've got the problem under control", "kids like to eat junk, so we're just giving them what they want." But all of their arguments are as empty as the calories in the sugary cereals they peddle on Saturday morning cartoons.
The conclusion is really quite simple: we need to ban kidvertising.