When I was a child, I was furious when people treated me like a child. I hated it when people talked down to me. I hated it when adults got to do stuff and I couldn’t because I was “too young.” I resented most authority merely because it meant I wasn’t the authority. I didn’t like being told what to do. Now that I’m an adult, even though I’m only 23, I see things from a different perspective. I can look back at my childhood and realize that adults were looking out for me. Yes, I still don’t appreciate people talking down to me, but I can see now that I was more vulnerable as a child and adults were protecting me. Regardless of how I felt about it, most of it was for my good.
Protection of children is a huge issue in advertising. There are debates on both sides, arguing that it is good or bad, ethical or unethical. A recent issue that’s sparked debate regarding child advertising involved Facebook’s ads to teenagers. Jeff Elder of the Wall Street Journal gave examples such as 14-17-year-old children seeing ads for concealed carry handgun holsters, nude webcam modeling and dieting pills. One of the ads for a new app apparently ended circulating a 14-year-old girl’s Facebook pictures to adult men on the web. According to Elder, Facebook changed its advertising policies and rules in 2011. Now, users from 13-17-years-old are more exposed. Although Facebook tries to protect young users to a certain extent, the fact that younger people see ethically compromising ads is troubling.
Child-targeted advertising didn’t start out as such an issue, but I believe advertising has expanded and along with its expansion comes worry. Currently, most issues with child-targeted advertising center around unhealthy foods.
In Sandra Calvert’s article on children and advertising, she pointed out two recent trends. First, children have more spending power, whether with their own money or that of their parents. Rebecca Clay explained that those under 12 spend $28 billion in a year, teenagers spend $100 billion and both influence another $249 billion of parental spending. The second trend is that advertising outlets and opportunities have increased in number. Child-targeted advertising has increased alongside these trends. Calvert pointed out that advertising is no longer limited to just television but is pervading almost every technology. Advertising is on the Internet, on social media, embedded into television shows and games, etc. There are some regulations and protections from the government, but I don’t believe they are enough. Calvert wrote, “children live and grow up in a highly sophisticated marketing environment that influences their preferences and behaviors.”
I wouldn’t say that all child-targeted advertising is bad. However, advertisements featuring nude models are bad, especially when young children are exposed to these ads. Advertisers should pay attention to the content of ads because of child vulnerability. Clay quoted psychologist Allen Kanner. He said, “Advertising is a massive, multimillion dollar project that’s having an enormous impact on child development.” In fact, Perri Klass wrote that children under the ages of seven or eight can’t differentiate advertising or identify what it tries to do. Another article in Children’s Central said children can’t understand “pervasive intent” until they’re in elementary school.
I think James Steyer expressed it perfectly when he said it’s not just what products are being sold but what messages advertisements send, specifically because the definition of who they are is still in formation.
In 2011, the Institute for Advertising Ethics (IAE) published its own Principles and Practices for Advertising Ethics. I believe many advertisers, including the recent example of Facebook, are not adhering to the fifth principle: “Advertisers should treat consumers fairly based on the nature of the audience to whom the ads are directed and the nature of the product or service advertised.” In the commentary, the IAE went into detail about children, touching on the same points I’ve presented. It touted that advertising to children needs to be under a more critical eye. It mentions their defenselessness, lack of maturity, lack of ability to evaluate the truth, and the vulnerability of being misled or unknowingly influenced. The IAE calls for the highest levels of ethical practice when advertising to children, and yet, children are still harmed and exposed to questionable and unethical ads.
Looking at this from a deontological standpoint, Facebook has not been ethical, nor have many child advertisers. These advertisers are not following rules laid down by their own institutions.
From the perspective of Immanuel Kant, or Kantian theory, actions are good if they come from good will. Advertisers are not advertising to children for good. They are advertising to children to get a piece of that buying power.
If seen through the lens of consequentialist ethics, it is also unethical. One could argue that advertising to children is wrong. I would say that certain advertisements to children are wrong. Clay described that children are going through an epidemic of materialism. She explained the belief that advertising to children has resulted in children convinced they aren’t happy or good enough unless they have the latest [insert any new product]. The consequences of many child advertisements are narcissistic children. Does anyone think this is good?
I don’t believe advertising to children is ethical unless it is truly there for the betterment of the child. If it’s working to educate the child, teach them truth, or get them interested in something beneficial, then it will be ethical in my book. My parents sheltered me from a lot of bad influences growing up. Sure, you could argue that I am out of touch with pop-culture. Sure, I was pretty mad about it when they always seemed to say “no,” but they wanted to protect me. Think about it from the perspective of the parent. If you were a mother or father, would you appreciate some of these examples above being shown to your child? How would define ethical or unethical advertisements?