Mark Bittman has an opinion blog post deriding the ability of food corporations to direct advertising to children. (An aside: how sad is it that Bittman has moved from the Minimalist column to opinion writing? His Minimalist column was a great resource; his opinion pieces are always just recycled Michael Pollan or Marion Nestle.)
He first dwells on the negative effects that TV food ads have on the obesity rate, apparently assuming the truth of it. I don’t think it’s absolutely clear that TV advertising is directly responsible for the obesity rate. The number of TV food ads seen by a given child also correlates with the number of hours spent sitting on her ass watching TV, which might also be a cause of obesity. And perhaps it is also correlated with a certain kind of more permissive parenting style that might be more likely to yield to demands for cookies. But maybe there’s something to it. In any case, here’s a view that there is a link between TV ads and obesity, and here’s a skeptical view.
Regardless, however, of whether TV advertising results in obese kids or it doesn’t, it’s immoral. Simply advertising to children (under 12) is immoral. It’s coercion, by its nature. Advertisers are trying to get children to do something that is not in the interests of the child, but the interests of the advertisers. Children cannot give informed consent. We have to override their consent when it is in their interests (so we should give them vaccines over their howls of protests), but this is not a similar case. They are unable to fully understand who the advertiser is and what they are trying to do to them and why. This same reason is why it’s never okay to molest children, even if the children say they’re all right with it. It’s still rape. Why? Because it is attempting to persuade a child to do something that is not in her interests, when they cannot consent to it. I am not saying that TV advertising is just as bad as raping a child! Obviously it is not! But it is wrong due to a similar line of reasoning. TV advertisers are trying to get children to do something that is not in their interests – and they cannot consent to it.
There are surely some adults who are ill-equipped to discern what advertisers are doing. But I think something like the doctrine of double effect might be true in this case: while advertisers can foresee that someone ill-equipped to resist persuasion might see their ad, it is not their intention to aim the ad at those people. But with children, it is exactly their intention.
Bittman addresses a legal argument that regulating advertising to children might not violate the free speech of food corporations:
Which brings me to this: an article published in the journal Health Affairs called “Government Can Regulate Food Advertising To Children Because Cognitive Research Shows That It Is Inherently Misleading.” (Journals are not known for tabloid-like headlines, but this does get the point across.)
The authors, Samantha Graff, Dale Kunkel and Seth E. Mermin, note that advertising was only granted First Amendment protection in the 1970s, when a series of decisions established that commercial speech deserves a measure of protection because it provides valuable information to the consumer, like the price and characteristics of a product.
“When the court extended the First Amendment to commercial speech,” Graff told me, “it focused on how consumers benefit from unfettered access to information about products in the marketplace. But this notion has been twisted to advance the ‘rights’ of corporations to express their ‘viewpoints’ in the public debate — not only about their favored political candidates, but also about the wares they are hawking.”
There is a legal test for judging whether commercial speech qualifies for protection under the First Amendment. Called the Central Hudson test, it says that such speech must be truthful and not “actually or inherently misleading.” Since, as the authors point out, children under 12 cannot fully recognize and interpret bias in advertising, they’re not equipped to make rational decisions about it. (Never mind that this is true of many adults also; that’s a different story.) Based on relevant court decisions and scientific evidence, they contend, all advertising directed at children under 12 meets the legal definition of “inherently misleading,” and therefore can be regulated by government.
I am not a legal scholar, and am not qualified to judge whether TV advertising meets the legal definition of “inherently misleading.” Whether or not ads to kids should be regulated or banned is not what I’m addressing. But the same line of reasoning applies to the moral case . All ads aimed at kids under 12 are indeed inherently misleading (in reality if not legality). For that reason, all ads aimed at kids — whether for food or for toys, whether they cause obesity or they don’t — are wrong.