The idea of advertising directed at children is one that has long troubled me and which I don't have any particularly good ideas on how my concerns could be reconciled. Seeing a loosely related post on a local food blog concerning McDonald's toys in happy meals set me off on a rant. I thought I'd share here for those that don't much care about local Albany restaurants and wouldn't see it there. I'm still chewing over this, I'd be very interested in hearing anyone else's thought on the problem of what to do in a free society in regards to children which don't have the capacity to act fully as free citizens but still live in a world where competing authorities seek to manipulate their development for their own ends, often, but not always, benign. Or to put it less technically, are marketers trampling on parent's right to influence their offspring through ads targeting children?
[Verbatim copy of comment from Times Union, I may clean it up later today.]
I've always been a little uncomfortable in this area. I don't really like the idea of restrictions on what companies can do to promote themselves and their products but also feel that this requires the assumption that their audience has the ability to weigh evidence and put their choices in context. It may seem to many that adults often fail to do this, and as practices have evolved companies have found ways to exploit our human failings, but it still seems fair game to me since an adult can at least choose to educate themselves about marketing practices to resist this.
With children though, the assumptions that make marketing fair game when used to manipulate adults don't hold true. They simply don't have the tools to properly assess the motivations and methods behind promotions such as toys given away. They also don't possess the independent ability to do the research needed to explore the cognitive biases to recognize manipulation. I remember enough of my childhood and how I thought to realize this, I paid far more attention to authority then and worked with an assumption that someone would have put in safeguards to protect against too much skewing or manipulation. I know now this is laughably naive.
You also can't put too much responsibility on parents. I don't have kids yet but when I do see programs that also target children, I'm always struck by how junk food, and other things I wouldn't want any children I have to be consuming, are so heavily marketed towards them. Trying to keep this kind of targeted programming away from a child until they're ready to assess it on its merits seems impossible in today's world without keeping a child away from much of what it means to be a kid today. Even if I tried to keep them away from TV, malls, and McDonalds, how could I ever enforce this once they're with relatives or friends? Trying to educate them on these matters also seems hopeless, children aren't developed enough to weigh competing evidence and claims to authority in meaningful ways until fairly late.
So I'm left kind of stuck. I don't believe that children are fair game to marketing such as McDonald's toys, marketing should be targeted towards those with the ability to see it for what it is. However, since targeting children is so lucrative I don't see how companies would voluntarily cease to do it, especially since many, perhaps most, parents see their products as an essential part of childhood. My belief is that this should be left to the parent until the child has developed enough to make their own choices but I don't see how to do this with modern marketing techniques that so saturate our world. It's a tough one, because the issue involved centers on the fact that children don't have the capacities to fully make their own choices and be free citizens, and the rights of both companies and parents to exercise their freedoms in ways that effect the lives of those that have not yet developed full capacities. Either way, someone's idea of freedom is getting trampled on, either the freedom to exercise property rights or the freedom to act as you think is fit as parent bringing up your child.
Sorry for the long comment, this is just a concept I'm trying to work out myself and felt this wasn't a bad place to share.
[I also can't read the full WSJ article, as someone who tries to read multiple news sources from different perspectives to try to get through the bias, the single paper subscriber model is one I have no sympathy for.]