European Commission

The concept of advertising directly to children is one that has provoked an on-going debate for several decades. Due to the rapid increase of television sets, television stations and online platforms it has never been easier to reach and influence children with advertising messages. Because children begin television viewing at a very young age, they inevitably encounter advertising messages much sooner than they develop the ability to effectively recognize such content as commercial persuasion (Singer, 2001).

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With the advancement of technology and a resultant increase in the channels available to advertisers, children now come into contact with media on a day to day basis. According to a recent national study of 3000 2-18 year olds, the average American child spends 5. 5 hours per day exposed to a variety of media (Strasburger, 2004). Given media’s ubiquitous presence, parents, regulatory bodies and politicians are concerned that children are not sophisticated in their level of understanding of the advertisements directed at them.

In a recent study, only one third of 4-6 year olds understood the selling intent of advertisements (Strasburger, 2004). Although children may not understand the intent of what is broadcasted to them, media messages do indeed have a profound impact. According to Bandura, children learn behaviour by observing others, both directly in real life and vicariously through the media. Indeed, the most effective way to teach a child certain behaviour is to demonstrate the behaviour and have the child model it, which is precisely what television advertising initiates (Strasburger, 2004).

The messages being depicted through advertising serve to promote materialistic values with the result that children are prone to regarding these values as the norm. In the case of Disney this promotion of materialism is seen in their illustration of the character Hannah Montana who is an idol for both children and adolescents. Hannah Montana leads a secret life as a pop singer and after recently moving to Malibu has to adapt to a new education based lifestyle. With a pop singing background Hannah lives a very materialistic life, owning all the latest clothes and devices.

The outcome of this commercial exposure is an increased emphasis on consumerism; children want to wear all her clothing, own all of her accessories and essentially model themselves on someone who is seen as fashionable, popular and “cool”. They become convinced that they are inferior or aberrant if they do not keep up to date with the endless array of new merchandise. This provides evidence of the cultivation hypothesis in which; those who spend more time watching television are more likely to perceive the world in ways that reflect the most common and repetitive messages of the television world (Signorelli, 2005).

It can be quite a shock when later in life it is learnt that this is in fact not the reality. Deiner and Crandall (1978) (cited in Brymand and Bell, 2007) describe four ethical tests for advertising and suggest that to determine whether advertising is ethically acceptable you must consider: 1. whether there is harm to participants, 2. whether there is lack of informed consent, 3. whether there is an invasion of privacy and, 4. whether deception is involved.

On the basis of these inferred principles I have reached the opinion that Disney’s advertising to children is not ethical. I believe that as their advertising distorts children’s perception of societal mores, there is harm to consumers and I would describe Disney’s marketing strategy as fraudulent deception. This is due to the fact that Disney successfully influences children’s patterns of consumption while being fully aware that the majority of children lack the cognitive skills to understand the intent of their advertising.

The Collins English Dictionary (2010) defines fraud as: “deceit, trickery, sharp practice, or breach of confidence, perpetrated for profit or to gain some unfair or dishonest advantage” and I believe that Disney’s advertising satisfies this definition. As children are not sufficiently mature to choose their own level of exposure to media influence I would also argue their informed consent to the philosophy of Disney marketing approaches has not been obtained and so Disney has failed Deiner and Crandall’s ethical tests.

The issue surrounding the effect that advertising has on children has become so prominent in recent times that Disney has had to employ damage control techniques to avert negative media attention. The problem of obesity and diabetes is one that is growing, especially in USA, and is regularly associated with excessive advertising of fast food products. Disney market their characters throughout the majority of fast food chains, with McDonalds happy meals containing the latest Disney endorsed character as well as character associated meals such as Burger King using iconic Marvel comic’s character Incredible Hulk as the theme for a burger meal.

It is clear that large profits are being generated by Disney endorsing its characters through fast food chains; however the company is well aware that to deviate from these particular practices, major sections of Disney’s fan base will be alienated and the promise of the brand itself will become diluted. In reaction to the pressure surrounding this issue Disney announced that they would be placing nutritional guidelines on licensed food products aimed at children.

The new policies call for Disney to use its name and characters only on ‘kid-focused’ products that meet specific guidelines, including limits on calories, fat, saturated fat and sugar (Disney, 2006). By setting these nutritional guidelines they reduce the pressure to completely eradicate character endorsed food (the food is being promoted by the character it’s not a separate character brand of food) and continue to display its brand in front of children. Now Disney has in fact created a market opportunity for themselves in which their characters are marketing healthier food to children.

In doing so they are ensuring parents continue to purchase their products as well as publicising that the motivation behind their efforts is to address and improve children’s health. Thankfully due to increasing sensitivity to the ethical issues surrounding advertising to children, there has been an increase in regulatory attention. Quebec, Sweden and Norway prohibit all advertising directed at children of less than twelve years of age whereas Greece bans toy advertising on television until after 10pm (Strasburger, 2004).

In Iceland, television advertising may not cause moral or physical harm to minors, while in Italy advertisements in cartoons are banned altogether (European Commission, 2011). In 1990, the Children’s Television Act was passed which limited the permissible commercial matter in children’s television programming on both cable television and network television to ten and a half minutes per hour on weekends and twelve minutes per hour on weekdays (Paglen, Hobson and Rosenbloom, 1999).

These regulations have been successful in tackling the problem of exploitive television advertising targeted at minors and have allowed the punishment of those who violate such terms. In 2004, the FCC imposed a half a million dollar fine against Disney for showing more commercial material then allowed by the CTA (Calvert, 2010). Disney had over thirty instances in which advertisements of products were in some way associated with an episode which is deemed illegal in children’s programming. This regulation has forced companies such as Disney to use less heavily controlled methods of media.