How the industry is answering calls to for tighter regulations on advertising to children
From the age of four, Nancy Vonk’s daughter was unhappy with her hair. “She wanted long, straight blond hair, and she had curly brown hair,” says the Toronto mother. As the girl grew older, she started worrying about her appearance. One day, Vonk asked, “Lily, why do you let yourself be sucked into this? You know this isn’t realistic.” Her tween daughter replied, “It doesn’t matter what I know. It’s what the world is holding up.”
Seeing her daughter struggle with unrealistic beauty expectations gave Vonk, co-chief creative officer at the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather Canada, even greater pride in a now well-known ad campaign her agency helped develop for Dove. Titled “Campaign for Real Beauty,” it includes a Self-Esteem Fund that lets girls learn and talk about beauty imagery. Vonk has since seen other advertisers adopt a similar message. “There’s some effort to show a consciousness of the issue,” she says, “but whether there’s really a meaningful shift underway, I don’t know.
Parents’ and health professionals’ growing alarm about how advertising affects children is causing some companies to review their ad practices. This is especially true among food and beverage manufacturers, which are facing growing calls for bans on advertising to children as child obesity rates soar. More than a third of respondents to our survey want to see ads aimed at kids banned outright, and 40% of the rest would like restrictions placed on the products promoted and the age of kids targeted. Yet it’s far from certain that banning ads would have much effect. Technology changes rapidly, there are loopholes in every rule and many of today’s most effective ways of getting kids hooked on brands fly under the radar of parents and regulators.
Television, which 96% of our survey respondents let their kids watch, is the most ubiquitous advertising source — but also the most strictly regulated. In Canada, commercials aimed at kids under 12 can’t use words like “new” or “introducing” for products that have been on the market more than a year; they can’t urge kids to buy (or ask their parents to buy) products; and they can’t suggest that using the product will make the child better than other kids. Companies also can’t use well-known kids’ entertainers or cartoon characters in their promotions, nor can their mascots appear in kids’ shows, to avoid blurring the line between ads and the programming. And advertisers are prevented from showing more than one commercial for the same product within a half-hour period.