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Marketers, Critics Face Off on Children's Advertising

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NEW YORK--Advertisers are trying ever-more-creative ways to reach the lucrative youth market, but critics are becoming more aggressive all the time to stem the dangers they see in children's advertising.

That was one theme to emerge from a lively daylong conference here last week that put several major children's-advertising watchdogs face to face with some of the leading players in that marketplace--including candy and cereal producers, toy manufacturers, advertising-agency executives, and television programmers.

The Children's Advertising Review Unit of the national Council of Better Business Bureaus sponsored the conference. CARU, founded in 1974, is the industry-supported self-regulatory watchdog of children's advertising.

The consensus among industry representatives at the conference was that more concern should be paid to self-regulation because key federal agencies, including the Federal Trade Commission, have increased their oversight over marketing and advertising directed at children.

"The more effective a job the industry does in regulating itself,'' said Elizabeth Lascoutx, a lawyer with CARU, "the less likely it will face outside regulation.''

In the past two years alone, several groups have issued reports detailing the increasing commercialism faced by American children:

  • Consumers Union reported in 1990 that children face a "nonstop advertising barrage'' that is increasingly reaching them in schools, such as with the ad-sponsored "Channel One'' news show and corporate-sponsored curriculum materials.
  • The Center for the Study of Science in the Public Interest reported last summer that more than 90 percent of advertising during the traditional Saturday-morning children's cartoons were for sugared breakfast cereals, candy, snacks, and fast-food meals.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics last year took the radical step of recommending a ban on all food advertising aimed at children.

Frank Palumbo, a Washington pediatrician, appeared before the more than 100 conference participants to defend the academy's recommendation.

"When a child comes to me obese, it's clear he hasn't been overeating broccoli,'' Dr. Palumbo said. "The foods they are craving are obviously the foods they are seeing advertised on television.''

But Carla Michelloti, a senior vice president of the Leo Burnett Company ad agency, whose clients include the McDonald's Corporation, argued that restrictions were not realistic.

"Why should children be entitled to less information on products they enjoy than other groups?'' she asked.

Kathryn Montgomery, the director of the Center for Media Education, a children's-television watchdog group, predicted a resurgence of grassroots activism aimed at TV broadcasters and advertisers.

"We'd like to see more than a 15-second public-service announcement promoting nutrition to counter the hours of advertising pushing junk food that children see,'' she said.

The advertisers and ad-agency executives at the conference did not indicate that they view children's advertising as much of a societal problem.

"The notion that children are vulnerable to advertising is overstated, we believe,'' said Carlos Gutierrez, the executive vice president for sales and marketing of the Kellogg Company, one of the largest spenders on advertising directed at children in the United States and the world.

Advertising, after all, makes it economically possible to present children's programming on commercial television, Mr. Gutierrez pointed out.

'They Love Advertising'

"Kids are smart, and they love advertising,'' said Paul Kurnit, the president of Griffin Bacal, an ad agency. " 'Sesame Street' was brought to them by the Letter T and the Number 8. We taught them to love advertising.''

What is clear is that conflicts between the watchdogs and the marketers are not likely to abate anytime soon.

Last week, Action for Children's Television led a group of advocacy groups in filing a petition before the Federal Communications Commission against a proposed cartoon TV show based on a character developed as a marketing logo for the snack-maker Frito-Lay.

Frito-Lay's ad agency developed "Chester Cheetah'' in 1986 to promote Chee-tos snacks, and the character now appears in cartoon ads and packaging.

A producer has been in discussion with the Fox Children's Network about a half-hour cartoon show based on the character that would be entitled "Yo! It's the Chester Cheetah Show.''

Helen Boehm, a vice president of the network, said that Fox has yet to commit to airing the show, but that, if it does, advertisements for Chee-tos would not air during the show and probably not at all during the Saturday-morning programming block.

ACT has asked the F.C.C. for a declaratory ruling that the proposed show violates the public interest because it blurs the line between programming and commercials.

The trend is already spreading, critics say. Kraft General Foods is reportedly backing a half-hour syndicated cartoon for next fall based on its "Cheesasaurus Rex,'' a character that promotes macaroni-and-cheese dinners.

"Next, I foresee the Energizer Bunny show,'' said Peggy Charren, the president of ACT. "I don't care how pro-social they cause [the character's] activities to be, it is still a commercial.''

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