NEW YORK—Health and children's advocates are turning up the volume on calls for tighter restrictions on television ads aimed at kids.
Stoking their efforts are growing concerns over obesity and research indicating that young viewers are especially susceptible to commercial messages.
Last month, the American Psychological Association called for sharp federal restrictions on commercials aimed at children younger than eight. Also last month, the Kaiser Family Foundation fingered TV watching and TV ads as prime suspects in rising juvenile-obesity rates. And at a recent U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing, the debate over the mass media's role in obesity grew so heated that lawmakers are considering a follow-up hearing.
In the coming weeks, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the APA and other health-care groups plan to step up lobbying for more limits on ads. An organization of groups critical of youth advertising, called Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children, has begun a petition drive calling on the Federal Trade Commission or Government Accounting Office to review the oversight of marketing to children.
"We think it's time for the government to take a real hard look at the industry's practices," said Susan Linn, a psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School and head of the foundation-supported group. Dr. Linn cites estimates that companies spend $15 billion a year on marketing to children.
'You're in control'
Critics point to common themes in many kid-focused ads. They often rely on cartoon characters that young children recognize, such as Scooby-Doo, to sell snacks or sugared cereal. Many of the ads appeal to their young targets' rebellious impulses.
Recent spots for Kraft Foods Inc.'s Lunchables, for example, shows kids in crowded classrooms using the product like a videogame control to erase a pop quiz from the blackboard or fast-forward the hands of the clock. The ads end with, "You're in control."
In a spot for Kellogg Co.'s French Toast Pop Tarts, a boy enters a diner filled with unattractive adults, orders Pop Tarts and is instantly served, then saunters out. The grown-ups, still waiting for food, watch in awe.
In another Kellogg spot, for Eggo French Toaster Sticks, a guy in a French toast suit bursts from a car, leading police and a kid on a backyard chase. A commercial for Cap'n Crunch Choco Donuts, from PepsiCo's Quaker Oats, shows the captain crashing a ship into a swimming pool, sending up a shower of chocolate doughnuts, milk and a woman in a bathing suit.
"Usually grown-ups are just stupid and stand in the way of what kids want [in these ads]," says Diane Levin, an education professor at Wheelock College in Boston. "The idea is to create ... a sort of premature adolescent rebellion among kids."
Marketers, and not just those of kids foods, see a major threat brewing.
"Momentum, not just in the U.S., but in Europe as well, is building and we're watching developments very closely," says Tom Conley, president of the Toy Industry of America, a trade group. Strategy XXI Group Ltd., a New York consulting firm, is working for the toy-industry group to track efforts to limit youth ads in nearly 20 counties, including the United States, Australia, Brazil, Britain and Ireland.
"As an industry, we strongly reject the claims that advertising causes childhood obesity and the related premise that new government restrictions or bans on advertising to children should be imposed," said Bob Liodice, chief executive of the Association of National Advertisers, who testified at the Senate hearings.
Instead of governmental intervention, "parents must learn to 'say no' more frequently to their children," said David Jaffe, head of ANA's lobbying office in Washington, warning, "Any ban or restriction could bring children's programming on free TV to an end."
A 'fun cereal'
Many advertisers say they have no desire to set kids against authority figures with their ads. Kellogg says that it stands by the nutritional value of Cinnamon Marshmallow Scooby-Doo cereal and that cartoon characters are an appropriate way to help young consumers distinguish brands.
The French Toast Pop Tarts spot is meant to contrast generations, but no commercial is meant to show any group in a negative light, said Celeste Clark, a company spokeswoman.
"We are very sensitive to making sure the commercial messages aren't disparaging in any way."