BACK BEFORE I was in the newspaper business I was in the magazine business. I sold them door-to-door and I was very bad at it. I sold something like seven subscriptions in two weeks and I would have sold almost none at all were it not for the fact that there are people out there -- mostly ladies in my limited experience -- who will buy anything you have to sell. I thought they would put me through college.
Its hard to describe them. Suffice to say that you know them when you meet them. They would answer the door without checking the peephole and they would stand there vacant-eyed as you went through your spiel -- three or four minutes worth of lying patter committed to memory and since lodged in my conscience. Then they would buy.
I sold Esquire to an old Italian woman who could not read in any language. I sold Parents Magazine to women who were not parents and I sold Life and Look to people who already had Life and Look. Sometimes later when their husbands came home, the orders would be canceled. These were husbands who knew their wives and their little sicknesses and they would come on the phone belligerent. We never fought back. Even in the door-to-door magazine business, there are some ethics.
Such is not the case it seems with the people who sell toys and cereals and what-not on television to children. With them, any customer is a customer and the Federal Trade Commission, which begged to differ, has been dealt a sharp rebuff. The Senate Commerce Committee recently ordered it to drop its study of television advertising aimed at children -- so-called kid vid -- even though what the FTC was doing, strictly speaking, was limited to staff proposals. One of them would have banned altogether television advertising aimed at children and while it was only a staff proposal and a long way from the law of the land, the Senate reacted as if the FTC had suggested banning children or, worse yet, television.
The committee's action was part and parcel of a general congressional reaction against the FTC in particular and the consumer movement in general. One by one, Congress has been knocking the stuffings out of consumer legislation, killing attempts to add even more regulations to what some people now consider an over-regulated economy,.
You can understand the reason for this sentiment. Businessmen have been complining for years that they are hamstrung by federal regulations -- that the regulations cost them money and leave them in a noncompetitive position when they come up against firms from abroad. When it comes to children's advertising, though, the arguments are not entirely economic. You get into the not insubstantial matter of the First Amendment and its guarantees of free speech and you also get into the jurisdictional fight between the FtcY and the Federal Communications Commission.
But if there is one major, over-riding objection to what the Ftc had in mind, it is that regulation is unnecessary -- that it is the government doing what parents ought to do: say no. Editorialist have called this government a nanny and they have a point. What they are saying is that this an unwarranted intrusion of the government into an area where the market -- the pure, simple and oh-so-wonderful market -- ought ot prevail. Television sells and parents say no and that is as God inteded it. It is about this point that someone mentions Adam Smith and Latin trips off the tongue -- caveat emptor , let the buyer beware.
But this is not a matter between sellers and parents but between sellers and children. If it were only the parents who were being sold, the firms would advertise on adult shows. Advertisers are selling the children in the hopes that they, in turn, will sell their parents and it is the sale -- the one to children -- that has nothing to do with the marketplace and Adam Smith and caveat emptor . It is an unequal contest.
Children, after all, are the original patsies of this world. Some of them, depending on age, can't tell the difference between the program they are watching and the commerical message. They know nothing about sales techniques, about exaggeration, about lying. It is hard to imagine a more unequal contest than the one between trained advertising specialists -- some with degrees in psychology -- and, say a 5-year-old. If someone approached a 5-year-old on the street and tried to sell him something, everyone would be offended. To do it on television, though, is for some reason, the American Way.
Even in the old door-to-door magazine selling biz, it was recognized that there were some people for whom the phrase "let the buyer beware" did not apply. They were people without sales resistance, with not an ounce of cynicism, with some need to believe and to buy what were selling and when someone protested you canceled the deal -- no arguments. It is hard to describe these people, say exactly what they were like, but one thing comes to mind, and this is why you tried not to sell them.
They were like children.