Marketing to Minors

In recent years, there’s been much debate about marketing to minors, especially when it comes to nutrition and health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recorded $870 million spent by the food industry on marketing to children under the age of 11 as of 2006. Nationwide, that number soared to upward of $1 billion spent on marketing to adolescents. And the majority of that advertising focused on sugary drinks, breakfast meals, candy, snacks and fast-food menu items.

Similarly, cigarette companies have been cited as far back as the 1980s saying that the trends and behaviors of teenagers were important to their campaigns–not necessarily because they wanted children and young adults to smoke, but because the industry relied upon raising up future smokers from a young age and instigating brand recognition/allegiance. This trend is characterized by two elements: advertising that suggests smoking is more widespread than it actually is (and therefore must be affordable or socially acceptable), and also that smoking makes a person “cool”–which can severely impact the self-image-obsessed teen. More recent confirmations on the part of several lead tobacco distributors clarify that strategic marketing hasn’t varied all that much in recent decades. In 2010, California effectively banned an electronic cigarette company from marketing to minors by saying that this product is safer than real cigarettes and marketing youth-oriented flavors such as strawberry and bubblegum.

The main issue that springs to mind is that a child might not be able to interpret and analyze advertisements in the same way as an adult, leaving him or her vulnerable to influence. An adult is able to consider an advertisement’s message and then make an informed decision, whereas a child is susceptible to interpreting or believing a commercial’s message without discretion.

Because the practice of advertising to children calls into question the boundaries of free speech via the First Amendment, this issue is largely federal and therefore a hot-button issue among those rallying for stronger child health governance–especially in the wake of Michelle Obama’s lauded Let’s Move! campaign to decrease child obesity and improve child health. But there are also strong examples being set at the state level.

In 2009, Maine enacted a set of statutes meant to govern how advertising targets those under 18, titled The Act to Prevent Predatory Marketing Practices Against Children. Key points include:

• Inability of marketers to collect personal information from minors
• Inability of marketers to sell collected health-related information about minors, either if this info was illegally obtained or if the info identifies the minor
• Use any information about minors for the intent of marketing to that minor with a call to action addressed to that minor (this is defined as “predatory marketing”)

Do you think that similar laws are necessary in additional states to protect kids? Is 18 a fair age to separate children from adults when it comes to advertising? What about federal laws governing marketing to minors on the Internet? Should marketers trying to evaluate and target young audiences be termed “predators”? Mad 4 Marketing would love to hear your thoughts!

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