Advertising aimed at children

On the way home today, I was listening to a discussion on NPR (Tell Me More) about Michelle Obama's initiative to combat childhood obesity. I didn't listen to the whole thing, but it seemed focused on junk food advertising. The argument seemed to be going something like this:

1) Data show that junk food advertising is directly linked to childhood obesity.
2) Childhood obesity is harmful.
C: Ban junk food ads.

The speakers were very insistent that they were not opposed to advertising aimed at children in general. Only junk food advertising was the problem. They also seemed to be careful not to talk about it in traditional ethical terms (e.g., the wrongness of advertising to children) but solely in terms of utility: scientific data and harms.

But the thing is, there is quite obviously a moral problem with advertising meant for children. And it's not only junk food advertising (although that is probably even worse than, say, toy truck advertising). All advertising to children is seriously morally problematic.

When advertising to children, one is quite obviously treating children as merely a means to an end (of profit, of course), and not treating them as ends in themselves. Advertising, which may well be morally questionable for adults in certain cases, is clearly flat-out manipulation when it comes to children. It is taking advantage of children's lack of ability to a) understand the motives of an advertiser in making the advertisement, b) look at advertising with a skeptical eye, c) resist impulses, and d) respond non-rationally to certain types of stimuli. Children cannot understand what advertising really is. They are impulsive and easily led.

Obviously, one must do some guiding for children. Children need guidance in order to flourish and one day become rational, thoughtful people. It is one thing, however, to instruct them in what is in their own interest as developing people (as when one teaches children why one shouldn't hit other children, or why one should eat one's vegetables). Advertisers are, quite baldly, leading them to make certain choices that are not in children's interests, but in the advertiser's. It is coersion, plain and simple -- regardless of whether children gain weight or grow unhealthy because of it. It's immoral to coerce even if it does not harm the health of children.

Of course, just because it is immoral doesn't mean it should be illegal, and plenty of things that are immoral are not illegal, and shouldn't become illegal (e.g., lying, adultery, etc.) And let me add the caveat that I know relatively little about philosophy of law. But the usual justification for the right of freedom of speech is that such a protected right gives rise to the greater good of a "marketplace of ideas." The truth or best ideas will arise, it is thought, from the open airing of all ideas, even bad ones. But the value of such a marketplace presupposes that rationality of its consumers. For irrational consumers, a marketplace of ideas is much less useful. It seems perfectly plausible to me to have a general presumption in favor of a right of freedom of speech derived from a need for a marketplace of ideas, but still think that speech aimed at children may be excepted from such protections.


  1. In theory, ads give us information to make choices. In practice, the information is, at best, slanted. Ads for children, especially young children, where we parents cannot (yet) use them as jumping off point for the necessity of skepticism to the claims of others, are quite problematic, as are skillions of things which involve children. But banning ads directed at children is highly likely to be ineffective. The agencies and their clever people will just target parents, and if by chance the children find the ads appealing, well...

    I'm curious how the conclusion that junk food ads are directly linked to obesity was obtained. Any links? I haven't the patience to listen to NPR's podcast, and show notes aren't available, at least to my quick glance.

  2. I think the show was probably still playing when I wrote the post. It should be up later.

  3. It seems the argument for making the ads illegal could also be applied to making sitting your kids in front of the tv illegal. Do we enforce a block between children and advertisers by stopping the advertisers or stopping the children from seeing the advertising? Both seem legally problematic, if not ethically sound.

  4. It's a different argument for not putting your children in front of the TV. One is about freedom of speech and his limits. That has nothing to do with interfering with families' decision-making. The argument about manipulation has to do with the kind of action it is, not how harmful it is.

    ANd yes, it would be legally problematic and a logistical nightmare. But in terms of making an assertive case that it should be legal, I don't see how it's there.