In the United States, attempts to regulate advertising and marketing to children have an uneven history. There were some vague attempts at regulation prior to the Second World War, mainly in response to broader concerns about the amount of money that was being spent on advertising. But in the decades following the War the increasingly intimate connections between advertisers, media companies and corporations on the one hand, and government on the other, largely precluded this. As the historian Dawn Spring has shown, the advertising industry was centrally involved in attempts to promote the American ‘free enterprise’ system, both at home and overseas – a system that was represented as a fundamental guarantee of individual liberty.[i]
Concerns specifically relating to children slowly began to surface in the mid-1960s. Initially, the focus was on misleading claims and techniques, especially in toy advertising.[ii] As early as 1964, the Federal Trade Commission banned a series of ads by the Ideal Toy Company, which apparently suggested that a battery-operated mechanical robot was voice-controlled. This was followed by charges against celebrity endorsements of toys. By the early 1970s, the FTC was becoming more assertive: in 1971, it issued a series of cease and desist orders against Mattel and other toy companies, pointing to the use of misleading visual perspectives, editing techniques and special effects that served to accentuate the performance of certain toys. In its words, these techniques could be considered deceptive, ‘taking account of the knowledge, sophistication, maturity, and experience of the child audience’. In the early 1970s, further orders were issued against other toy companies, some of whom (such as Milton Bradley and Avalon Industries) appeared to be serial offenders: despite potential fines of $20,000, there was continuing doubt as to whether they were complying. Meanwhile, in 1972 the Federal Communications Commission began a series of hearings to consider the broader issues at stake – not least the basic dependence of children’s television upon advertising.
These actions came about partly in response to public campaigns, especially the work of Action for Children’s Television, which was formed in 1968. The target for ACT was not only misleading advertising techniques, or the sheer amount of advertising, but the fact that the television system itself was based on commercial funding: this, it argued, fundamentally precluded public service objectives, such as the provision of educational content for children.[iii] One particular target was the rise of ‘programme-length commercials’ for toys, which began with Mattel’s Hot Wheels cartoon series in 1969, and really took off in the late 1970s and 1980s. For its part, the advertising industry pushed back against ACT: the American Association of Advertising Agencies argued that there was very little public concern about advertising to children, and cited its own surveys purporting to show that the vast majority of people supported it.[iv] During the 1970s, the FCC was moderately sympathetic to the campaigners (for example, it banned ‘host selling’). However, under the Reagan administration of the 1980s, regulation was largely abolished: in 1984, for example, an FCC order permitted ‘product-based programs’, cancelling an earlier ban.
There is a longer history to be told here, which is well beyond the scope of this essay.[v] However, it is interesting to consider why marketing to children became a public issue when it did. As I’ve suggested, many of the techniques that subsequent campaigners found so objectionable date back even before the period I’ve been considering here. Yet these practices were not at all controversial at the time. The 1950s and 1960s did see a step change – partly through the use of television, and the explosion of market research – but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the issue really began to appear on the radar of public debate. It was only at this time that marketers and businesses began to see the need to push back at their critics, or moderate their claims about the power of advertising.
The issue of children’s relationship with media – and with consumer culture – is often a focus for much broader concerns.[vi] The idea of childhood serves as a convenient vehicle for what might be called ‘symbolic politics’ – and for wider anxieties about just about any social problem one might care to name. This occasionally reaches the spectacular dimensions of so-called ‘moral panics’, but it is a much more general, and often more diffuse, phenomenon. In the wake of the social movements of the 1960s, concern about children and advertising became a proxy for much broader arguments about the shortcomings of consumer capitalism; although it also provided a focus for much more conservative anxieties about cultural and moral decline. By invoking the issue in this way, campaigners on both sides were able to press emotional buttons in their efforts to command wider support – and of course ‘innocent children’ is one of the most powerful emotional buttons of all. This isn’t to imply that such campaigns were somehow misplaced, or dishonest. However, I would suggest that this approach can distract attention from the much bigger issues at stake, and lead one to ignore their difficulty and complexity.
Critical analysis of advertising and marketing almost invariably tends to overestimate its power. Advertising is often regarded as a form of mass deception that sustains consumer capitalism much more broadly. It is a ‘magic system’, which persuades us that happiness, self-worth and identity can be achieved solely through consumption. For their part, marketers are often keen to proclaim the power and effectiveness of advertising; yet when they come under public criticism, they often step back from such claims. Advertisers frequently argue that they are merely offering a mirror to society – and as such, it is bound to reflect back our materialism, greed and vanity, as well as our other social prejudices.[vii] In my view, both sides of this argument tend to be overstated; and the polarization between them is quite unhelpful.
Advertising alone did not create a ‘consumer society’: whatever such a term ultimately means, this was a much longer and more complex historical development. This essay has focused on a small slice of a much longer narrative. In many respects, there are continuities between this period and earlier times. Nevertheless, the period of the post-war baby boom did see some significant shifts, not just in the quantity of marketing to children, but also in how children were understood, described and targeted. Television allowed a much more intensive ‘mediatization’ of marketing to children, which fundamentally transformed the nature of the children’s market; market research enabled advertisers to target children more accurately, or at least to imagine that they were doing so.
We can only speculate about the longer-term consequences of this. By the late 1960s, at least some of the children of the baby boom had gone on to vociferously reject the culture of consumerism – although many returned to it with a vengeance in the 1980s. From the hippies to the yuppies, these changes may have been little more than rhetorical fashion. Yet arguably, the emphasis on consumption as a key arena for individual choice, autonomy and self-expression that was key to the marketing practices of this period has had a much more profound and lasting influence.
[i] Spring (2011).
[ii] Information here comes from files relating to the American Association of Advertising Agencies, at the Hartman Center, Duke University.
[iii] These arguments were elaborated in a book by the academic William Melody (1973).
[iv] This research was conducted by Roper Research Associates in 1972, and was cited in a statement to the FCC by AAAA Chairman Seymour Banks in January 1973.
[v] Critical accounts of the work of ACT and its associates can be found in Seiter (1993) and Hendershot (1998). Pecora (1998) also recounts the broader history of regulation.
[vi] I’ve discussed this issue (endlessly) elsewhere: the most relevant discussion here would be in the first couple of chapters of Buckingham (2011).
[vii] See, for example, Fox (1984).