Pediatricians to Congress: Protect Children From Themselves, First Amendment Be Damned

By: Jeff Fairmont

Children and teens need to be taught to be more skeptical viewers of advertising message, and the federal government is just the agency for the job, according to a national association of pediatricians. “Children and adolescents view more than 40,000 ads per year on TV alone,” asserts a report released this week by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Children younger than 8 years old “do not understand the notion of intent to sell and frequently accept advertising claims at face value,” the committee reports.

But rather than simply warning parents and leaving it to them to correct their children’s misconceptions or, heaven forbid, tell the little darlings no when they demand whatever goody they’ve been exposed to, the AAP report calls on Congress to take action, including such steps as banning junk food ads during programming mainly viewed by young children. “Advertisers have slowly but steadily infiltrated school systems around the country,” the committee writes. “The ’3Rs’ have now become the ’4Rs,’ with the fourth R being ‘retail.’ Ads are now appearing on school buses, in gymnasiums, on book covers, and even in bathroom stalls.”

But rather than being desensitized by this obvious overexposure, clearly the youngsters are retaining every single message and taking each to heart. If that’s the case, it seems like we could save the countless billions of dollars we invest in taxpayer-financed education every year simply by slipping school lessons into television commercials. Oh wait, we tried that back in the 1970′s.

Children, the report further scolds, should be exposed to fewer television ads for anti-impotence drugs and more for birth control — although abstinence, to be sure, would not be among the authors’ recommended methods. The AAP also urged Congress to push for limits on children’s television viewing and access to the Internet, as well as restrictions on how alcoholic beverage makers promote their products.

Other than that, the report was pretty realistic.

Clark Rector, a spokesman for the American Advertising Federation argues that no studies have proved advertising is to blame for childhood obesity or other ills. Meanwhile, he believes several of the academy’s proposed restrictions violate First Amendment protections for commercial speech.

“Besides the constitutional problems,” an editorial in the Mankato (Minn.) Free Press points out, “attempts at broad regulation of advertising in today’s world would be ineffective and impossible to police. Kids often spend as much or more time on the computer and Internet as they do watching TV. With Web pages — and ads — streaming in from around the world, regulations would simply put other media at a disadvantage over competitors.”

That’s true, but one shouldn’t have to resort to arguments that practical to explain why the federal government has no business regulating advertising to such an extent. The fact of the matter is, the products the pediatricians want to shield children from are legal. They may not be appropriate for use by children, but that’s a far cry from saying children can’t ever hear about them — or that it’s the government’s role to decide.

If a product or service is so destructive that children can’t even be aware of its existence, it should be illegal — in which case it goes without saying you wouldn’t be promoting on television. But if lawmakers lack the guts to ban it outright — and, in some cases, as with alcohol, actually collect tax money for it — isn’t it just a little hypocritical to be telling the television networks they need to apply an even tougher standard?

Mr. Fairmont is Associate Editor of

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