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Published: Saturday, 12/7/2002

Saturday essay: Better to tell kids no than try to ban TV ads

BY RICHARD M. KERGER

Having been involved in helping to raise a number of children, I do appreciate how important they are to us and how careful we have to be in their formative years.

I also accept that some messages coming from TV can be damaging.

That said, a recent proposal promoted by a group labeling itself “Commercial Alert” seems almost as dangerous as the purported harm it seeks to eliminate.

The group is seriously proposing that TV advertisers be banned from directing advertising to children 12 years old and younger. The rationale is that advertisers are too effective in stimulating young minds with the lure of their wares.

The group posits that there will be conflicts between children and parents over money being spent for the acquisition of the goods being promoted by the advertisers.

Frankly, the only thing more absurd than this proposal is that the group has an executive director who is presumably getting paid.

Let us deal with the legal issues before we get to the more important aspects.

With no small appreciation for its role in our society, the drafters of the Constitution made their First Amendment one providing for freedom of speech and assembly.

Not surprisingly the courts over the years have interpreted this to cover not only political rallies and the promotion of religious beliefs, but what is called “commercial speech.”

That is precisely what a television commercial is - speech.

If as a matter of constitutional interpretation we start down the path of prohibiting companies from going after target markets, we will have commenced a process that will chisel away at our rights and ultimately leave us with censors sitting in Washington telling us what we can hear and say.

What group would be next? Lonely single people seeking to expand their social horizons? Elderly people who wish to buy presents for grandchildren? Unemployed factory workers who want to buy their spouses diamonds for Christmas but cannot afford it?

I must admit that if the ban were extended to advertising by lawyers, I would have to rethink my objections, but that has already been determined to be protected, regrettably.

To put the matter squarely, there is little question in my mind that any legislation of the kind being promoted would be unconstitutional. An equally significant issue is whether it is good policy.

How does one determine whether ads are directed at children 11 and 12 as opposed to those who are 13 and 14?

Moreover, in my years of observing children, I must have missed the marked improvement in wisdom that occurs when a child becomes 13.

My experience has been to the contrary, particularly with boys. Whatever glimmer of common sense my sons had shown at age 12 disappeared completely six months after their 13th birthdays. Regrettably in some of us males it never returns.

Perhaps the most important point is that saying “no” is what parents do. The way you help children develop values is by helping them understand why decisions they may not enjoy are nonetheless the right ones.

Part of the process of parenting is helping young children understand why they need to listen carefully to what others are saying. Helping them understand why they really do not need a set of Magic Blow Pens or the latest McDonald's toy is part of the process of helping them understand how to become an adult.

Can it be uncomfortable? Of course it can. Few parents enjoy watching their children throwing a tantrum. But it has been my experience that after the first couple screaming fits produce no results, they are given up as a method of negotiation.

I mean, after all, it takes a lot of energy to scream and pound your fists on the floor. If it is not going to be effective, even the slowest child will move to a different mode of debate.

Let me be clear. I find many of the commercials to which this group refers are at least in bad taste.

Clearly they are intended to lure our children toward their products in a way that will cause those children to put pressure on the parents.

But these same commercials are marvelous teaching opportunities. Short of banning advertising at all, which is a wonderful but entirely unlawful and impractical concept, I think we need to help our children learn to differentiate between what they need and what they can afford. It is a lot less expensive for them to learn that at age 8 than it is at age 50.

The reality is that as we go through life, we are perpetually walking down alleys filled with people sneaking out of the darkness to try to inveigle us into buying their products.

We hear the dulcet tones on car radios while we drive. We see their images on billboards. We read their words in newspapers and magazines. Increasingly you are bombarded by Internet commercials.

If we try to protect our children from these messages up until the age of 12, we are going to have a terrible time dealing with them at age 13.

Commercial Alert is presumably well intended, but about as wrong as it could possibly be.

Want to get a message to offensive advertisers? Do not buy their products and tell them why.

Richard M. Kerger is a partner in the Toledo law firm of Kerger & Kerger.



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