We are an organization that seeks to defend the integrity of the family and its values against the incursions of the economic system and the media, which so dominate contemporary culture. A committee studying the negative effects of advertising on the parent-child relationship has concluded that we ought to oppose most persuasive advertising targeted at children with the intention of influencing parents’ buying decisions. However, the committee has not been able to articulate a principle for distinguishing morally objectionable instances of such persuasion from acceptable ones.
Plainly, deceptive advertising aimed at children—for example, telling them that eating a certain cereal will make them star athletes—is objectionable since it uses lying to mislead them into pressuring their parents to make buying decisions rather than providing rational grounds for those decisions. At the same time, advertising that tries to persuade children to influence their parents to do what they should, for a reason at least including some benefit to the children themselves, seems morally unobjectionable. Thus, there does not appear to be a problem with an advertisement by a public health authority urging children to tell their parents to stop smoking in the home: “Your smoking harms us kids.” But many ads fall between these two extremes. They neither are deceptive nor are they supportive of commonly recognized values; they are simply intended to increase the sales of various products by getting children to influence their parents’ choices.
Are all such ads morally objectionable or are some acceptable, and why?
This question calls for the derivation of norms for advertising directed to children who cannot make their own decisions. Such advertising is not intended to provide information, but only to persuade. Persuasion directed toward either adults or children can be morally flawed in several different ways. If not flawed in any of those ways, advertising meant to persuade children to motivate their parents to act in the children’s true interests is morally acceptable. But advertising otherwise acceptable is morally objectionable if meant to motivate parents to prefer a product that either offers children no real benefit or a benefit no greater than an available alternative. Its specific moral defect is that it violates the parent-child relationship by using children, not in their own interests, but in the interests of third parties to bring about parental action that is motivated emotionally rather than rationally.
Advertising aimed at adults and others mature enough to make their own decisions and act on them has two distinct and even separable purposes: to provide information—for example, about the availability and price of a product or service—and to persuade. Advertisers who merely provide information assume that those addressed already have relevant interests and are prepared to act on them; advertisers engaging in persuasion try to arouse interests and influence behavior. By contrast, advertising directed toward children too young to make their own decisions never simply provides information, even when it appears to do only that, since advertisers take for granted that the children are not in a position to use information. Rather, such advertising attempts to motivate children to motivate their parents.
Some people argue that every effort to persuade children of anything is wrong, since they cannot recognize persuasive discourse for what it is, criticize it, and resist the persuasion. They think any advertising addressed to children necessarily is a sheer imposition on the child’s plastic personality and so is inherently manipulative.351 But parents and others caring for children often try to persuade them, and such efforts surely are not wrong when undertaken for the child’s true benefit. The idea that such persuasion imposes on children is confused. It recognizes their lack of adult capacities but demands that they be treated as if they were adults. What actually is required is that persuasion directed toward children seek their true benefit rather than use them as means to others’ ends. On this basis, I think you are right in seeing nothing wrong in ads aimed at children that are morally acceptable in other respects and are meant to motivate children to influence their parents to do something parents should do, at least partly for the children’s benefit.
You certainly are right in observing that many ads aimed at children, like many aimed at adults, are morally unacceptable because they are deceptive. Often, too, they are bad because they are meant to motivate children to motivate their parents to do what the parents should not do—for example, serve them cereals less likely to contribute to a balanced diet and more conducive to developing bad dietary habits than alternatives that are equally or even more economical. Moreover, without being deceptive or seeking to motivate wrongful behavior, advertising aimed at children as at others can be, and often is, wrong inasmuch as it seeks to arouse emotions that are simply irrelevant.
Many people would argue that, if advertising directed toward children is not wrong in one of the ways referred to in the preceding paragraph, it is morally acceptable. However, I believe you are right to focus attention on the parent-child relationship. It obviously is strained whenever parents must resist a child’s advertising induced pressure to do what they should not do. But even if not wrong in this way, ads aimed at children often deliberately violate the parent-child relationship and are wrong precisely for that reason.
These are the specific sort of ads your committee should concentrate on: those aimed at children and intended to get them to motivate their parents’ buying decisions so that they will choose one product or service rather than another from among a number that either offer no real benefit to the children or else do not differ significantly in the benefit offered. Such ads violate the parent-child relationship.352
Their sole beneficiary is the advertiser, who increases profits by increasing sales and, in a competitive situation, market share. The parents do not benefit; indeed, they are motivated to make a choice, not on rational grounds, but by the pressure the advertiser’s persuasion applies to them through their children. Nor do the children benefit, since, even if the products or services advertised do benefit them, the persuasion’s specific purpose is not that benefit but the choice of the advertiser’s product or service rather than an alternative. For example, ads for cereal perhaps encourage children to get their parents to serve breakfast, which is good for children; but the advertiser’s specific aim is to cause parents to choose this brand rather than that, and advertised differences, if not actually detrimental, make no significant difference to children’s well-being.
Since the sole beneficiary of this sort of advertising is the advertiser, neither the child nor the parent is treated as a person; both are used as instruments. The child’s motivational capacity is actuated as a mere means to motivating the parent, while the parent, as has been explained, is induced through the use of the child to make a choice without rational grounds. This use of the child—to emotionally motivate his or her parents’ preference—intentionally damages the parent-child relationship. Instead of helping and encouraging the parent to benefit the child, the advertiser uses the child to motivate the parent to act in the advertiser’s interest. In effect, the advertiser works to invert the appropriate relationship between parent and child, so that parents, rather than guiding their children will follow their children’s nonrational preference.
A cereal manufacturer advertising in this way might argue that the advertising really is intended to benefit children and not merely use them. It includes persuasion that children eat cereal for breakfast, while, the argument might claim, studies show that many children either have no breakfast at all or eat something less nutritious than cereal. But even if the persuasion does benefit children in this way, its specific point is to bring about, not that benefit, but the choice of one cereal rather than another for the particular advertiser’s benefit. Otherwise, the advertiser would limit the content to persuading the child to eat a good breakfast, including not only cereal but other appropriate nutrients, and there would be no need to mention any particular brand of cereal.
If cereal manufacturers really had children’s interests at heart, and respected the sanctity of the parent-child relationship, they would set up a trade association that would advertise to children with precisely that objective, and would direct advertising for their particular brands exclusively to parents. Assuming that parents need to be encouraged to feed breakfast to their children and that cereal ought to be part of it, the advertising directed to children would be morally acceptable. It would do nothing more than to move them to move their parents to fulfill their duty to provide their children with a proper diet. At the same time, the cereal manufacturers could rightly seek as their ulterior end that, by persuading children to eat nutritious breakfasts, the advertising would expand the market for cereal, and that ulterior end could justify them as managers of their businesses in doing a public service.
351. Assuming something like this argument, Dale Kunkel and Donald Roberts, “Young Minds and Marketplace Values: Issues in Children’s Television Advertising,” Journal of Social Issues, 47 (1991): 57–72, summarize research on young children’s responses to television advertising, which shows that they do not understand its persuasive intent and are very susceptible to its commercial message; Kunkel and Roberts deplore the failure of the research to shape policy regulating such advertising. My criticism of the argument suggests that research should be directed to the negative effect of such advertising on the parent-child relationship.
352. Studies suggest that many parents experience and resent this violation: see Brian M. Young, Television Advertising and Children (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 140–47. Young’s book as a whole provides factual background for the ethical question dealt with here.