Children and Advertising: The need for evidence-based regulation

Small Screen - Thriving in a Digital World

November 7, 2022

Professor Elizabeth Handsley, President, CMA

Children and advertising: the need for evidence-based regulation

Advertising has been one of the recurring issues for CMA over the twenty-plus years that I’ve been working with the organisation. Even back before I started, CMA’s predecessor Young Media Australia had held a conference asking whether advertising to children was ‘a fair game’, at which Phillip Adams coined the phrase ‘corporate paedophilia’. While that expression might seem a little dramatic today, it captured the way that businesses often target vulnerable children, take advantage of their credulity, and trick them into thinking their lives will be improved by things that are in fact against their interests.

There is good research evidence to tell us that any advertising to children is unethical and unfair. Children under about 5 have difficulty even differentiating between advertising and entertainment, so any advertising is a matter of ‘cash for comment’ as far as they are concerned. Then it isn’t until about age 8 that children start to develop an understanding of the selling intent behind advertising – an understanding that is crucial if one is to develop appropriate scepticism in relation to the claims it makes.

The issues become even more pressing when certain kinds of products and services are advertised. There are some categories that we all accept children should not consume: alcohol and gambling, for example. Ironically, precisely because they are not suitable for children, ads for them aren’t covered by the specialised children’s advertising code. Then there is the category of foods that should play only a limited part in a healthy diet, but seem to dominate in advertising in all media. Again, many of these foods have appeal to adults as well, and the industry food and beverage code is worded so that this undermines the special protection children might otherwise have. In any case the food, advertising and media industries have steadfastly resisted any attempt to get real reform in spite of mounting public health evidence. So far, they have been successful. A final category that creates real problems for families is advertising for scary movies, especially in public places like the back of buses. Because it’s impossible to avoid seeing such advertising, special sensitivity is needed, but provided it’s not actually violent it seems to get a free pass.

The regulatory system we have, such as it is, is highly complex and full of holes. The industry codes have no enforcement mechanism as we would normally understand that term, and we have historical examples of businesses more or less thumbing their nose at a breach finding, or even saying they knew they were in breach but were happy to run the campaign until a finding was made. Moreover, methods of promoting products and services other than direct advertising, for example sport sponsorship, might or might not be caught by the regulatory net. Another major limitation is the one previously mentioned: protections for children apply only to advertising ‘aimed’ or ‘directed’ at children, which is a much narrower category than the advertising children actually see or notice.

All of these issues, while still highly significant, start to seem somewhat quaint when we look around in 2022. Now we see advergaming, blurring the line between ads and entertainment like never before. We see behavioural advertising, that uses data gathered from other sources (not necessarily with the child’s consent or knowledge) to target children personally and gain their trust like never before. And when we look at the multiple platforms for advertising and try to figure out what rules apply and who is responsible, we get more confusion than ever before.

If only policy makers would start with the research evidence: if children lack capacity properly to process and respond to advertising, let’s look at what they’re exposed to, where, and how much, and develop regulations that build on that knowledge. The only realistic way for this to happen is through a fully accountable government process that makes the interests of children a primary consideration, as is their right.

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