To protect children from a child abusive industry, legislation, education, and public mobilisation required.

Author:Brodeur, Jacques

Parents and teachers, as members of civil society, have developed strategies to oppose child abusing techniques used by the marketing industry. The struggle to reduce the influence of advertising and violent entertainment on children and teens has led to victories that have obtained little or no coverage by the press.


Over the last half century, while some industries polluted air, water, and food, the marketing industry increasingly poisoned children's cultural environment. After decades of persistent efforts by civil society, governments have been forced to regulate our physical environment. But few governments have shown capacity to regulate the use of marketing that targets children. The increasing power of the media on public opinion has instilled such fear on decision makers that very few have dared to take action. This has left the industry free to decide what children will watch on television, what products will be offered to entertain them, what strategies will be used to manipulate their wishes, desires, values and understanding of life. In other words, to abuse them. With concentration of ownership, a handful of conglomerates now control 85% of all media. (1) These conglomerates have become the "hidden departments of global culture." (2) They control information, which gives them the privilege to decide what parents will learn about the way that the marketing industry abuses kids and teens and the damages it generates. After witnessing the increasing amount of insidious and sophisticated advertising carried by television, more citizens have searched for and experienced ways to protect children from this commercial form of child abuse. The increasing power of the media over children has inspired resistance from parents, teachers, child rights advocates, and citizens in all regions of North America. (3) Some underreported promising practices have been experienced in Canada and in the U.S.

The Purpose of Television

Television does not exist primarily to inform and entertain. Television is basically a commercial industry that sells viewers to advertisers. Patrick Le Lay, President and Director of French TV network TF1, declared in 2004 that the role of television is essentially to sell brain time to Coca-Cola. (4) To maximize benefits, broadcasters constantly search for various ways attract and sell more viewers to advertisers who will then agree to pay more to reach them. This type of business is frightening when those for sale are children. (5) Television sells young audiences to advertisers who hire doctors of psychology (6) to learn how to attract children, how to keep them glued and addicted to the tube, how to transform their desires into needs, how to influence their preferences, and teach them how to nag their parents. To understand the importance of advertising for marketers, citizens need to know that commercial messages often cost up to 10 times more to produce than the program we watch despite the fact that they fill only 20% of air time. In North America today, advertisers spend more than $20 billion per year to reach children, which represents an increase of 2000% in less than 20 years. (7)

Advertisers use many techniques to influence youth, to manipulate their needs during the stages of their growth into adulthood. Some of the more common vulnerabilities that advertisers take advantage of to sell products include young peoples' need for peer acceptance, love, safety, their desire to feel powerful or independent, aspirations to be and to act older than they actually are, and the need to have an identity. Much of the child-targeted advertising is painstakingly researched and prepared, at times by some of the most talented and creative minds on the planet. Advertisers battle over what they chillingly call "mind share" and some openly discuss "owning" children's minds. (8) Every year, an increasing amount of sophisticated ads are used to reach children through television programs, movies, videogames and Internet. (9) As a result, parents and teachers have searched for effective ways to protect children from marketing. Many have lobbied, petitioned, and requested, but very few obtained support from decision makers in the form of legislation. While some have abandoned efforts, others have created their own means of protecting children from mental manipulation and emotional desensitization. Fortunately, some of these efforts have helped reduce the impact of commercial pollution on the cultural environment and protect the mental health of young citizens. But most victories have gone under-reported.

Legislation, Most Effective Way to Protect Children

In all areas of human production and commerce, the most effective way to protect children from child abuse by professional marketers is legislation. Whenever pollution of food, water, or air increases risks to human health and safety, even if polluters deny any responsibility for damages caused by their industry, decision makers are naturally requested to take action to protect the most vulnerable citizens. In the United States and Canada, as in most countries, all over the world, a vast majority of citizens support the regulation of advertising to children. (10) History has shown that other industries have tried to oppose legislation to protect citizens. The automobile, tobacco, food and oil industries have all expended tremendous amounts of money and energy to deprive citizens of protection as the profiting industry has developed tight commercial links with the industry that controls public information--the media. Therefore, informing the public about child abuse by marketers has become very difficult. Very few countries or states have succeeded in regulating the targeting of children in the marketing industry: Greece, Sweden and Quebec are among them.

Legislation To Ban Advertising to Children

A North American success story was realized in the Province of Quebec, Canada. The law making advertising to children illegal in the province of Quebec received unanimous bipartisan approval back in 1976. This legislation required not only vision and courage from political decision makers, but also strong support from civil society. Otherwise, it would have been crushed by the media soon after its adoption. By 1980, the rules to enforce the legislation and make it clearly understood were ready. The toy company Irwin Toys Limited chose to challenge the law in the Supreme Court of Canada, arguing that it restricted the company's freedom of speech, protected by the Qurbec Charter of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights. In April 1989, after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for lawyers, the industry received the verdict stating that the Quebec legislation to protect children was fully constitutional. The judges worded their decision quite clearly and considered that the means chosen by the government of Qurbec were reasonable, proportional to the objective.

(1) There is no doubt that a ban on advertising directed to children is rationally connected to the objective of protecting children from advertising. There is no general ban on the advertising of children's products, but simply a prohibition against directing advertisements to those unaware of their persuasive intent.

(2) The ban on commercial advertising directed to children was the minimal impairment of free expression consistent with the pressing and substantial goal of protecting children against manipulation through such advertising.

(3) Advertisers are always free to direct their message at parents and other adults. They are also free to participate in educational advertising. The real concern animating Irwin Toys is that revenues are in some degree affected. (11)

The Supreme Court decision includes 83 pages which accurately describe how children are vulnerable to sophisticated manipulation techniques used by the marketing industry, why any provincial jurisdiction in Canada has constitutional legitimacy to protect children, why children need such protection until the age of 13, and how marketers and broadcasters are not restricted from advertising to adults. This legislation made Quebec the first, and to this day--30 years after its adoption--the only jurisdiction in North America to protect children from advertising. This raises a few questions. Why did other State jurisdictions in the U.S. and in Canada refuse to take action against child abuse by the marketing industry? (12) Are Quebecers the only people who care enough for their children to use legislation to protect them from this very lucrative and powerful industry? The Canadian Supreme Court Decision offers a rich lesson in the workings of the media. (13) Analysis of the Irwin Toys Decision provides important strategic insights to decision makers all over the world who prepare to legislation, and to lawyers who have to defend the legitimacy of similar legislation in court. Further research is needed to evaluate how the ban affected childhood obesity (14) and other marketing related diseases (MRD) in Quebec. Statistics Canada has provided data showing that young Quebecers are less obese than other young Canadians and that Quebecers commit fewer violent crimes than the rest of Canada. (15)

Recently, the American Psychological Association requested similar legislation to protect children in the U.S., along with a coalition of organizations advocating for children's rights. (16) According to the Washington Post (17), a survey conducted in 2006 showed that more than 80% of U.S. citizens agreed that advertising to children under the age of 9 should be prohibited. (18) Commercial Alert campaigned for similar legislation to ban advertising targeting children under the age of 12. (19)

Impact of Legislation on Quality Programs for Children

During the years following its adoption, while the legislation was challenged in the courts, intensive lobbying by advertisers argued that children in Quebec would be punished...

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