Advertising Again Under Scrutiny Regarding Children's Health
> 12/4/2006 10:42:16 AM

The U.S.'s largest organization dedicated to children's health, the American Academy of Pediatricians, has taken off the gloves in a new policy statement regarding advertising to children. Much of the scrutiny regarding childhood obesity has focused on advertisers, but little has been done to change either the law or the public perception surrounding the practice. While this damning statement should be read in its entirety, there are several points that we'd like to highlight. (Emphasis ours)
  • The average young person views more than 3000 ads per day on television, on the Internet, on billboards, and in magazines.
  • Research has shown that young children—younger than 8 years—are cognitively and psychologically defenseless against advertising. They do not understand the notion of intent to sell and frequently accept advertising claims at face value.
  • Exposure to tobacco advertising may be a bigger risk factor than having family members and peers who smoke and can even undermine the effect of strong parenting practices.
  • In 1 study, the amount of TV viewed per week correlated with requests for specific foods and with caloric intake.
  • More than 200 school districts nationwide have signed exclusive contracts with soft drink companies. There are more than 4500 Pizza Hut chains and 3000 Taco Bell chains in school cafeterias around the country.
In total, the AAP's policy statement amounts to a shocking slap in the face. By merely bringing together the expansive information and statistics regarding children and advertising, they make a powerful statement about the ethical implications of continued acceptance of advertising practices as they currently stand. While the group makes many specific recommendations to pediatricians within the academy, their approach can also serve as a guide to others who are concerned about the future of this issue.

Their strongest, and as they point out, least confrontational plea is for greater education efforts toward media literacy. Failure to understand advertising and recognize its motives places young people, especially younger children, at risk of falling under its sway. This is particularly problematic with with prescription drugs and harmful behaviors such as cigarette smoking and drinking alcohol. By empowering children at an early age to see past advertisers tricks, we would be teaching them how to navigate through our increasingly media saturated world.

Another important point that the AAP makes is that new technologies are blurring the lines between advertising and entertainment. The Internet, video games and digital television are allowing advertisers to have access to our eyeballs and the eyeballs of our children at new and different times. We all need to be more vigilant about what we see and hear, and we need to make sure that our children are similarly braced for advertising onslaughts when they might not have expected them in the future. Drawing the line between what is an ad and what isn't will only get more difficult, but again, teaching media literacy will help us counteract this.

With the amount of information and research that now directly links negative outcomes to children's exposure to advertising, it really shouldn't be a question any longer of if we need to do anything. Changes can and should come from the lowest levels first, in the home and in the community. Schools should be held to a high standard by school boards and parents. Keeping advertising out of children's lives, or keeping its effects at a minimum throughout their formative years, can be a powerful force to helping them lead healthier lives in the future.

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