"Pediatrics," the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, reports that children younger than 8 years old lack the capacity to critically assess the commercials they see. They fail to recognize advertising messages as sales pitches, and often interpret commercials as truth. While the United States doesn't have much legislation controlling how companies can advertise to children, regulatory committees and corporate self-regulation in response to public pressure have changed how advertisers communicate with children.
In comparison to other countries around the world, the United States has relatively relaxed children's advertising regulations. In Greece, for example, children's advertising is prohibited between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. on television networks, and commercials featuring war-based toys are totally banned, according to the Peace Pledge Network. That doesn't mean that the United States is a regulation-free zone. In 1990, the FCC ruled that advertising to children can't exceed 12 minutes per hour on weekdays and 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends. Children's networks are also required to broadcast three hours of educational programming per week. Lastly, shows based on children's products can't feature advertising about the item within the program itself.
Children's Advertising Review Unit
The Children's Advertising Review Unit, a committee run by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, publishes ethical guidelines for advertising to children and encourages voluntary corporate self-regulation. CARU was established in 1974 and receives financial support from members of the children's advertising industry. CARU monitors child-directed advertising, advises advertisers on acceptable advertising practice, and receives and judges complaints about children's advertising practices.
CARU's document "Self-Regulatory Program for Children's Advertising" contains a number of detailed guidelines, but there are a few critical takeaway points. CARU discourages deceptive advertising and says that what is considered deceptive has to take limited child analytical abilities into account. Specifically, animation and sound effects shouldn't be used to misrepresent the capabilities of a product or toy. Advertising about food shouldn't show children consuming more than the serving size suggested by the product label and should encourage balanced lifestyles. If a product shown needs assembly, requires batteries or is displayed with accessories sold separately, that fact needs to be explicitly stated. Advertisers should be careful not to blur the line between programming and advertising. CARU also recognizes that children often have unrealistic expectations about winning contests, and recommends that advertisers clearly explain the prize being offered and the chances of winning.
With childhood obesity emerging as a major problem in the United States, some are calling for regulations governing how food producers can communicate with children. In a 2007 research study, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reported that of the food commercials children see, about 34 percent advertise candy and snacks. The study emphasized that the prevalence of food advertising wasn't balanced by messages about healthy living. According to the Advertising Educational Foundation, a 2004 bill that would have given the Federal Trade Commission power to regulate food advertising to children failed to pass. However, the Ad Council upped nutritional awareness advertising efforts, and some food producers have responded to concerns with self-regulation. For example, Kraft removed advertisements for some of its less healthy products from media targeting children ages 6 to 11. The Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, launched in 2006 by the Better Business Bureau, currently has 17 food producers in its membership who have agreed to focus on advertising healthier foods and pull food advertising from elementary schools.