I'D LIKE to take a ride way up high in the sky with my Three Musketeers. I can't, of course, but TV commercials tell me I can. They tell me that candy is the way to happiness, healthiness and liberation - maybe even levitation. If I were a child I would believe every word of it; in fact, commercials aimed at kids are so effective that adults are not necessarily safe from them either.
After years of petitioning by groups like Action for Children's Television in Boston, the Federal Trade Commission this week finally decided to consider doing something about Madison Avenue's massive assault on the vulnerabilities of children. The proposals made in a 340-page staff report are complicated and in some cases unenforcable, but that doesn't mean a regulatory agency doesn't have the right to step into this fracas. The commissioners voted unanimously to investigate the rule-making possibilities suggested by the report.
The trickiness of this regulatory effort generally will generate hues and cries of controversy during the next two years of discussion. Commercial television's public relations foundation, the National Association of Broadcasters, didn't waste any time in joining this chorus; it issued a condemnation of the FTC report two weeks before it was officially announced.
Meanwhile, not even the consumer activists who have been goading the FTC into action are satisfied with the staff report and its recommendations. "It's not as strong as we'd like it," says ACT president Peggy Charren from Boston.
Robert Choate, president of the Council on Children, Media and Advertising, was more dissatisfied. In a letter to FTC Chairman Michael Pertschuk, Choate chided the commission for confining its recommendations to Saturday morning - kiddle prime time - when "90 percent of children's television watching occurs during afternoons and evenings seven days a week."
Choate also criticizes the commission for ignoring the problem of over-the-counter drug ads seen daily and frequently on daytime and nighttime television, estimating that the average TV watching child sees 800 such ads a year.
You can bet that the folks who turn out Snickerses, Froot Loops, Captain Crunches and Ravioli-O's are going to be the most emphatic in urging the FTC to stay out of the risky business of regulating advertising aimed at children.
And, truly, one can see potential cause for widespread jitters when the government gets into areas like this. If the Feds are going to redesign ads for Life Savers, they may be encouraged to meddle further in the content of television programming. It's not a quantum leap from the argument that candy ads are bad for children's teeth to the argument that "Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels" is bad for their little brains, and that maybe the government should become a programmer as well as a regulator.
But the fact remains that ads directed toward kids on television, especially those for products that are potentially harmful to their health, are excessive in number and often insidious in design. The FTC staff report says that advertises admit their commercials are designed to turn children into "highly successful naggers."
That's what particularly irks Charren - she knows kids will eat candy anyway, but they're bound to eat more if they are perpetually bombarded with cute inducements to do so. "These commercials pit the advertiser against the parent for control of the child, "she says. "We just don't think that is appropriate business behavior."
On a recent Saturday morning, we monitored commercials on ABC, the network with the most successful kiddie-show lineup, between 9 a.m. and noon. During that period there were at least 24 separate commercial messages, and of these, 15 were for candy or sugared cereals, five were for food outlets like McDonald's or Burger King, three were for toys and one was for Cheerio's, a rare cereal in that it is not presweetened on the assembly line.
In addition, during the same three hours, ABC aired six promotional announcements for a boxing match schedule for later that day - even though the networks have said they refrain fron advertising adult programs during kiddie time - and five promotional aanouncements (all exactly the same in content) for "Happy Days" and Laverne and Shirley, "two prime-time, Tuesday night shows heavily dependent on small-fry tune-ins for their hefty ratings.
ABC also televised, during this period, three of its brief instructional "School-house Rock" inserts, praiseworthy and well-produced but also sometimes interrupted for candy spots. There was also a hint of what the FTC wants much more of: "corrective" advertising that reminds kids there is more to a normal diet than kids there is more to a normal diet than Alpha-Bits and Fruit Stripe Gum. Butthese spots are made not by the advertisers but by the Department of Agriculture.
Worse, the corrective ads are so feebly produced, obviously on much smaller budgets than the ads and without such aids as catchy jungles and sprightly animated creatures, that they could not possibly coimand the viewer attention that a lavish pitch for Cookie Crisps gets.Cookie Crisps is, yes, every child's dream - cookies for breakfast, a cereal that "looks and tastes like cookies," either "chocolate chip" or "vanilla wafer," and is hawked by an adorable little wizard named Jarvis.ABC also had one other commercial, produced by the network, in which an animated urchin called Timer reminds young viewers that there are such things as healthy snacks and suggests they try making frozen pops out of "juice-or whatever turns you on."
Almost all the commercials for products that have no recognizable benefits to children are jolly, seductive extravaganzas. It's no wonder that "Sesame Street" used Madison Avenue as the model for its instructional messages. We all know children can learn the words and tunes to commercial jungles with much greater facility than they can learn the Pledge of Allegiancea, the National Anthem or even "Early to bed, early to rise."
It's been said that federal regulatory commissions should not try to usurp the parent's role in the raising of children and that banning the advertising of sugary foods will not discourage kids from eating them. This sounds like good sense but there are mitigating qualifications. For one thing, we know now that television is virtually a third parent to a child,that the child is going to spend more time in front of the screen than he is at almost any other single activity except sleep - more time with the tube than with the teacher.
In addition, a lot of those goofy funsy cereals sitting on the grocer's shelf were invented only because they could be sold through television. Was there a crying demand in the nation for Honeycombs or Apple Jacks or Crazy Cow - "the nutritious cereal that makes chocolate flavored milk"? In some of these cases, the product was designed to fit the ad campaign and not the other way around. Surely this can't be a fair way to do business with kids.
The final answer may lie not with the FTC but with the FCC, which has a clearer mandate to keep television civilized (obviously, they have failed at this for about 30 years) and which is now mulling over another ACT petition, this one a request that the commission reconsider a previous decision against enacting rules that would limit the amount of commercial time on kiddie shows.
That seems the best way out and probably the best protection for kids. An outright ban on all advertising to children sounds unworkable, too - many prime-time ads have an incidental, though hardly any accidental, child appeal, anyway, so kids will never be totally safe from ads - but sharply reducing the number of child-directed ads, and requiring stations to increase the number of pro-social, pro-health messages they televise, would certainly be one giant step for childkind.
Children and television are inseparable now, and there's no turning back in the amount of time they are likely to spend in front of the set. The thing to do is try in every way possible to reduce the damage those hours will do to them and to increase whatever possible benefits television can offer. Broadcasters are simply not about to do this on their own. The government is going to have to coax them. And if thke coaxing fails . . .