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If TV's Selling It, Little Kids Are Buying Into It

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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Research shows about 65 percent of America's schoolchildren have televisions in their bedrooms. Even one of four toddlers has such personalized TV access.

If you ask Joanne Cantor - and she is a highly qualified person to ask - this is not good. Part of her reasoning is based on a new, comprehensive report by an American Psychological Association task force calling for tighter government regulation of television advertising aimed at children.

"Sponsors spend a lot of money for a 30-second commercial to make the product seem so incredibly fun and enticing," said Cantor, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin and member of the APA task force. "Then Mom 1/8or Dad3/8 is left with only words to provide a counterpoint of view."

Cantor and her APA colleagues spent two years poring over all available studies about kids and TV. Among other findings: The typical American child will see 40,000 commercials this year. That's more than 100 per day.

What's more, the task force confirmed what some behavioral scientists have been contending for nearly three decades. Kids who are 8 or younger can't discern what is a sales pitch and what isn't.

"Because younger children do not understand persuasive intent in advertising, they are easy targets for commercial persuasion," said psychologist Brian Wilcox, director of the Center on Children, Families and the Law at the University of Nebraska and chair of the task force. "They believe everything they see on TV."

Anyone with young children in their lives knows the vulnerability deepens because kids have tremendous recall. Those enthusiastic pint-size viewers will take that knowledge from TV commercials, say, about soft drinks or sugary cereals, and bring it right to the grocery aisles, where those products are eye-level for kids.

Another new report, this one from the Kaiser Family Foundation, makes a link between rising obesity statistics and kids developing an emotional attachment to junk food advertised on TV.

The APA task force said research shows children can develop a brand preference after a single viewing of a commercial.

It is all quite daunting and one reason Cantor recommends the family TV (as in singular) be positioned in an "open-access room" where parents can easily monitor commercial messages.

The APA task force report calls for restricting advertising for kids 8 and younger. It recommends that all disclaimers be "clearly comprehensible to the intended audience" and that the government fund research to figure out how children are influenced by Internet advertising.

Some of the task force members are optimistic that the United States can follow the lead of Sweden, which has banned ads directed at young children and aired during kids' programming.

The Federal Trade Commission, which regulates advertising, and the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees television, considered banning TV advertising to kids back in the 1970s on similar grounds that children don't know fact from first-rate marketing. The FCC did restrict the amount of commercial time during children's shows.

But, clearly, the research and what our lawmakers can do about it bear repeating. Why not? Advertisers don't hesitate to show us the same commercials over and over.

Cantor is skeptical that big business will have much of a big heart on the issue.

"Our culture is just so commercialized," she said. "It's hard to visualize business interests allowing for a change in law."

Instead, Cantor recommends that parents better control matters by limiting young children's exposure to television advertising. One option is pre-screened videos - skip the previews - and another is PBS.

When children reach 6 to 8, Cantor said, it is appropriate to begin explaining commercials to them. You might even make it into a game of "what are they trying to get me to do" with the child guessing what the advertiser hopes to do.

"You talk to them about the product isn't necessarily as good as it looks," said Cantor, who has written a children's book, "Teddy's TV Troubles" (Goblin Fern Press), which will be published in April and is intended to be read to kids by parents. "If you are watching a commercial with your child that you feel is false or misleading, and you don't say anything, that comes across as a tacit endorsement of the product."

In any case, Cantor said limiting TV time is the optimal strategy for any school-age child.

"For all children, a time limit makes a big difference," she said. "Parents need to provide other options so TV isn't the first resort or becomes a constant background in a child's life."


(Bob Condor writes for the Chicago Tribune. Write to him at: the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611.)


(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.


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