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Child Advertising is not Inherently Unfair

Dr. David Rowthorn, a Sessional Teacher at the University of Warwick, discusses the ethical framework behind advertising to children. 

Advertising to children, particularly young children, has been controversial for at least 40 years. In 1978, the FTC tried to ban all advertising to under-8s. Since then, several jurisdictions around the world have taken that exact step. Advertising to children is banned in Quebec, Sweden, Norway and Brazil. Even the UK government briefly considered it in 2011. One justification for this is that advertising harms children, with junk food being the poster child for this harm. But there is a strong intuition among many people that advertising to young children is wrong in principle, even when adverts are not overtly harmful. One way to explain this is to invoke the concept of fairness. Advertising to children too young to understand how advertising influences them is inherently unfair. This argument was made in an influential APA report in 2004, and underlies much of the animosity towards child advertising.

I recently wrote an article arguing that that child advertising is not inherently unfair. This blog entry summarises that article. As a philosopher, my approach is not empirical. Rather than add to the existing research on whether children understand advertising, I reconstructed and assessed the argument that has been built on those findings. There were a number of strands to the paper, but two stand out as most representative of the overall argument. First, I analysed the concept of fairness that was at play, concluding that it doesn’t support the view that child advertising is inherently unfair. Second, I pointed out that persuading children who cannot defend against persuasion is something we as parents and society do all the time. It cannot be this alone which makes advertising to children unfair.

Fairness in philosophy is mostly used to talk about the distribution of goods or the equal treatment of people. In the context of child advertising, by contrast, fairness is used in the same sense as in the idea of a fair fight. A child who cannot defend themselves against advertising is like a fighter with her hands tied behind her back. When phrased like this, the argument is fairly compelling. Defenceless children are at the mercy of malevolent advertisers.

But this analogy, and the use of the concept of fairness that it represents, is misleading. It overlooks the power of regulation to screen advertising. When we regulate advertising successfully, we prevent the harmful adverts from getting through. The appropriate analogy is actually a fight in which both sides have their hands tied. Another way to look at it is this: while children cannot defend themselves against advertising, we can defend them through regulation. Under those circumstances, the power of the intuition that child advertising is unfair is diffused.

Another helpful way to think about this point is as follows. Cinema as a whole is harmful to children – after all, if we let them watch all the films ever made, they will be exposed to extremely violent and sexual content. But of course we don’t let this happen, and it sounds strange to even say that ‘cinema is bad for children’. We choose films that we know to be harmless. The same could be true of advertising if regulated properly. Just because advertising Coke to children is unfair, doesn’t mean that advertising Thomas the Tank Engine toys is.

At this point, the paper addresses a powerful objection. The point is not that advertising is harmful, but that advertising persuades children! Isn’t this persuasion – this changing of their attitudes without their knowledge – what makes advertising to children unfair? If this is right, then it doesn’t matter that children are only exposed to adverts that parents deem harmless. It is the mere persuasion of defenceless children that is the problem.

The article’s response to this objection is to point out that persuading defenceless children cannot be unfair on its own. If it were, then all sorts of persuasion that parents and society routinely practice would be unfair. Even arranging children’s food into a smiley face so they’ll eat it is persuasion. After all, children don’t know how we are influencing them.

The take-home point is that it makes little sense to describe child advertising as unfair in principle because there is no principle that can support that view. Advertising to children is unfair when it is harmful to them. But whether advertising harms children depends on how well we regulate it. Advertising McDonald’s using manipulative and misleading techniques is unfair; but is a mundane advert where children play with a wooden train set really unfair to show to children? That conclusion is not supported by the evidence and the available arguments.

The consequence of this article is that child advertising is not unfair if it is done properly. It remains to be seen how successful regulation can be in eliminating harmful advertising. We may yet decide that trying to regulate effectively is not worth it – that it’s just easier to ban it entirely. But before doing so, we should bear in mind that advertising supports a great deal of children’s media. Children lose something when we ban child advertising. If we are going to do so, we’d better have good arguments.

This article forms part of my wider research goal, which is to develop a deeper philosophical understanding of consumer vulnerability as it relates to children. The article is the first step in getting to grips with the relation between children’s limited understanding of advertising and the ethical framework that makes this an important fact about them. This in turn helps inform the way we think about children as vulnerable consumers.



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