Any day now, I am sure, someone will come racing down my street hysterically accusing the government of "interfering" with the sale of bubonic plague.
The current concern with Big Government is rapidly degenerating into an indiscriminate antigovernment mania. In fact, the national pendulum is swinging so far that it now threatens to knock down even the Federal Trade Commission's moderate attempt to defend our kids from TV hustlers.
For years, advertisers have treated children like miniconsumers they can con into lobbying their parents for the worst kinds of sugar-coated, marshmallow-infested empty calories that ever floated in a bowl of milk. Two weeks ago, the FTC came out with some proposals for possible rule-making, and everyone is accusing them of being pushy.
In essence, the commission - which moves with all the speed of the continental drift - has initiated a national discussion on importatnt issues. The three major parts to the proposals are: 1) a ban on advertising directed at kids under 8; 2) a ban on advertising o high-sugared products to kids from 8 to 11; and 3) a requirement that advertisers fund nutritional counter-ads. Within two years those proposals could be accepted, modified, amended and finally written into law.
From the reaction, you would assume that Uncle Sam had just poked his naughty long nose into the private affairs of the American family. But it's just not so. For once the government is on our side: It is actually trying to keep the nose of the friendly Cookie Crispy pusher out of our lives.
This just isn't an issue of Big Government and Little Children. It isn't a question of Washington's usurping parental responsibility for the care of kids' diets. It is simply a matter of unfair trade practices.
The FTC has the responsibility for deciding whether advertising is unfair, and whether a trade practice causes "substantial injury to consumers." In this case it has to determine whether it is intrinsically unfair, by any normal definition, to hype anything to young children - especially those who are so young they don't even know what an ad is. Then it has to rule on whether highly sugared products cause "substantial injury" to kids under 11.
The FTC is acting not as a massively powerful federal agency but, rather, as a check on a truly powerful private agency television advertising.
The fact that I as an individual parent have the power to forbid a single Frankenberry from every darkening my doorway is irrelevant. The FTC has to rule on whether advertising the Purple Peril of the breakfast table is unfair or injurious.
In the meantime our Big Government phobia casts the advertisers, of all people, in the role of beleaguered defenders of private enterprise, free choice, etc. I personally cannot imagine adwarding a white hat to anyone whose major goal in life is figuring out newer and better ways of manipulating naive kids into eating junk.
At Peggy Charen, president of Action for Children's Television, once tole me: "No one would care if they were trying to sell good stuff. Let them get kids to eat too many bananas."
But, even as I write this, the latest issue of Broadcasting Magazine carries a picture of the major moguls of the business in an emergency meeting, under the headline "War-Gaming on the Ad Bans." Those people are not, as you might assume, trying to figure out a way of selling new acceptable products to kids at a profit.
They are, rather, devising - you've got it an advertising and public relations campaign to convince the public that there isn't a problem. We will soon all be reading about how Count Chocula builds longer teeth Ten Ways.
In face of a positively Byzantine business mentality like that, how can anyone scream "Government Interference"? For years, a sophisticated advertiser has come into millions of homes every day solely to persuade kids to eat junk. Now the government is finally suggesting some possible rules to limit their access.
If that's interference, put out the welcome mat.