Cyber Seducers?

Cyber Seducers?

August 01, 1996

If you thought the croaking Budweiser frogs were a bad influence on children, and Joe the smoking camel was even worse, prepare yourself for... Tony the Tiger? In cyberspace, no less.

The World Wide Web has been an enormous boon for scaremongers, offering a continual array of frightening firsts that allegedly create unprecedented threats to our safety -- and especially our children's safety. A report released this spring fingers yet another Internet threat: big, hairy spiders of advertising lurk on the World Wide Web, threatening all the Miss (and Master) Muffets out there. The report, from the Center for Media Education, accuses Internet sites sponsored by various manufacturers of kid-oriented products such as breakfast cereal and toys of being not just new places to advertise goods but "highly manipulative forms of advertising, often disguised as information or entertainment, [which] could intrude into every corner of the lives of children."

The CME is a Washington-based group "founded in 1991 to promote the democratic potential of the electronic media." Its report, entitled "Web of Deception," is a petition to the Federal Trade Commission. Since the Internet is still in its development stage, the CME wants the FTC to take advantage of this "window of opportunity to develop safeguards to protect children."

The CME is offering "guiding principles for regulation" to ensure that "a complete ban on children's advertising is not necessary." But its alternative doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room for advertisers. Among other things, the CME suggests that "advertising should not be disguised as content" on companies' Web sites; no promotion or advertising should be allowed on children's content areas, or "play pages"; and there should be no links between these play pages and company pages, although "discrete underwriting should be allowed." No direct interaction between "product spokescharacters" (such as Kellogg's Tony the Tiger) should be permitted, and marketers would not be permitted to tailor ads to -- or "microtarget" -- individual children.

Complaints about the dangers of advertising to children might seem familiar. The CME is the "designated successor" to Action for Children's Television (ACT), a group of crusaders experienced in decrying the evils of advertising. Act was well known in the '70s and '80s for lobbying against ads for pretty much anaything targeted at children, including children's vitamins and games of chance in specially marked packages of sugary cereal. But ACT's greatest glory was its near success in banning ads on children's television.

In 1978, the FTC proposed an ACT-promoted ban on children's ads because, the agency said, kids are "too young to understand the selling purpose" of ads during Saturday morning cartoons." ACT's leader, Peggy Charren, was jubilant. "Never before has there been a better opportunity to help change a system that permits children to be manipulated for private gain," she declared. Charren was glowingly portrayed as a David facing many Goliaths; a laudatory Washington Post article noted that she had come under "incredible buffeting by the broadcasting, sugar, and food lobbies."

Although the effort ultimately failed, ACT received some fabulous consolation prizes. Now broadcasters are not allowed to advertize toys during shows which feature those toys (like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers), and they must clearly separate commercials from the program (for example, by singing, "after these messages, we'll be right back").

Today, the technology is different, but the hype is the same: Advertisers are bewitching our children. Parents are helpless. Only government can save our children.

The most revealing thing about the new CME report is not what it contains, but what it lacks. It has plenty of lurid descriptions of "manipulative," "exploitative," and "seductive" advertising, but the report produces no evidence of damage. It merely asserts that "a number of marketing and advertising practices... are potentially harmful to children" (emphasis added).

Moreover, the report is vague on the details of just how these "new forms of manipulation and exploitation" are really new. The CME asserts that Internet advertising is unique, but this is only true in the sense that radio ads once differed from print ads, and color TV ads differed from those shown in black-and-white. Web sites are simply a new generation of advertising, and, contrary to the CME's fears, they are actually less intrusive than are television and print ads.

Some children's activity pages do have links to advertising sites, but they are labeled and easy to avoid. For example, one play page is sponsored by Microsoft. A bar at the top of the page says so. When you click on it, you go to Microsoft's children's page. If you don't like it, you click back to the original page. This exercise is only a problem if you are worried that Microsoft might "have activities designed to keep children engaged for extended periods of time," that is, that Microsoft might entertain your kids. At any rate, in many cases, a child would actually have to type in the Web address of a particular company's Web site to even get to the "incessant hucksterism" that the CME laments.

Since the CME has no actual harm to point to in its report, it resorts to scare tactics that range from obvious to silly. Did you know that "children's online areas are quickly being populated by a growing number of animated characters and products. Their purpose is to develop relationships with children that will foster brand loyalty. They are hosting online sites and offering children endless opportunities to play with them"?

Shelley Pasnik, co-author of the report, elaborates. "If a child sees an ad on the 'Net for a product he wants," she says, "and he asks his mother for it, and she says 'no,' the company has driven a wedge between the parent and child. The parent now looks like the bad guy."

That's not a marketing problem; it's a parenting problem. No matter how hard federal regulators try, they will never stop children from begging for stuff they see on TV, at their friends' houses, and, of course, on the Internet.

Apply Pasnik's reasoning to children meeting Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, and playing with mascots at sporting events, and you begin to see what the CME's real concern is. The group appears to believe that advertising is all-powerful, and that its "emphasis... on continuing to refine techniques for creating loyal, lifetime customers" is intrinsically bad.

Advertsing's purposes in a market economy are essential, and essentially benign: informing potential consumers of the existence and price of products, new and old. Since children rarely control their own disposable income, the dangers of having their decisions manipulated by advertising are even less than for adults. And despite the psychology and communications research the CME uses to bolster its assertions, the bulk of serious advertising and marketing literature demonstrate that as children age, they are increasingly skeptical about advertising. Very young children may indeed be susceptible to ads, but by the age of 7, the vast majority of children understand the purpose and techniques of advertising. Most teenagers are even more skeptical of advertising than are adults. "The same cognitive development that enables children to get around the Web also lets them recognize advertising when they see it," notes John Calfee, a former staff economist with the FTC, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

If anti-advertising hysteria isn't enough to make the FTC dance to the CME's tune, it has a backup alarm to sound: privacy. "A growing number of children's areas are now eliciting personal information," the report says. "Some use incentives [such as free gifts] in exchange for such personal data as e-mail address." The CME suggests a ban on companies collecting and selling this information.

The CME has gained some unlikely allies by playing the privacy card. The Electronic Privacy Information Center, for example, is directly involved with a lawsuit challenging the Communications Decency Act. It is also dedicated to increasing the availability of privacy programs on the Internet. Thus, while EPIC does not endorse the content restrictions the CME has proposed, EPIC Director Mark Rotenberg says, "We do support them on the privacy issue because we think there's a lot of evidence to support it."

Again, the Internet's novelty is creating phony distinctions and unwarranted fear of new threats. Companies are following an old tradition in soliciting names, addresses and other consumer information on the Internet. For decades, children have sent in cereal box tops -- and their addresses -- to get magic decoder rings and other sundries.

Parents who do not approve of these practices still have the last word in what goes out online. Many online services, such as Prodigy, currently offer separate sign-on accounts so that parents can decide what sort of information each of their children has access to. Inexpensive software, such as NetNanny, which prevents children from releasing any personal information, is also widely available.

Although the CME is well aware such technologies exist -- the report's appendix lists them -- the report still insists that "the best hope for children is a regulatory framework." The CME is only skeptical of big business, not big government, which must, in their view, supplant the parent. It is not "reasonable to expect parents to effectively protect [sic] their children from these practices."

Commercial speech has recently been both vindicated and attacked. The Supreme Court has recognized that the more information consumers have, the better; as Justice Thomas wrote in a recent decision, "all attempts to dissuade legal choices by citizens by keeping them ignorant are impermissible."

But others haven't heard the word. The Food and Drug Administration and Philip Morris have both proposed advertising restrictions on tobacco. Representative Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), the grandson of a bootlegger, recently introduced legislation to limit alcohol advertising. Given the regulatory precedent set by the Communications Decency Act, regulation of the Internet in the name of children could be politically plausible. "The FTC can regulate almost any advertising media," says Calfee. "And they are very actively looking at the Internet."

So far, the FTC's official position is ambivalent. "This is a new area that developed a lot faster than we thought. CME's report flags and raises issues to think about," says an FTC official. The FTC is primarily concerned with "the question of how traditional consumer protection applies on the Internet." He raised concerns that sexual predators might "hack" in and obtain personal information about children under the guise of collecting marketing data. Also, "there's a long-standing public policy concern about the commercialization of children," he says. "The question right now is what combination of self-regulation [by the industry] and government regulation would be best." He does admit that "ultimately, it is the parent's job" to monitor what their children do on the Internet.

Significantly, the veracity of the information on the Web sites has not been an issue. It is advertising per se, not fraud, that the CME wants to protect children from. But they might end up protecting them from Web sites in general. "Advertising supports the Web," notes John Phillip Jones, professor of advertising at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications. "We won't have it without ads."

If CME succeeds in forcing companies to dull down or eliminate their advertising, we would have to say goodbye to most of the ad-funded Web sites for children -- and if the anti-advertising principle spreads in Internet regulation, possibly for adults, too. That would leave mostly government-funded sites. Talk about manipulation.

This article originally appeared in Reason Magazine.