This essay is concerned with whether or not it is ethical and socially acceptable to advertise products to children and therefore whether or not advertising to children should be strictly regulated. In order to answer this question it is necessary to consider the nature of advertising itself. It is usually thought that advertising can be justified because it appeals to people who are able to make rational and informed decisions. Advertising must contain a degree of manipulation and persuasion, however how this manipulation is achieved and to whom it appeals should be of key concern to anyone who is concerned with the ethics of business. It is the thesis of this paper that it is never ethically acceptable to deliberately direct advertising to children because they do not posses the necessary capacity to make decisions for themselves. In order to establish this argument then the paper will consider different arguments both for and against this point.
One obvious reason why it is ethically unacceptable to advertise to children is that they do not posses the capacity to choose whether or not they see such advertising and do not therefore have the same capacity for choice as a adults do. Childhood is often thought of as a time in which one is especially impressionable and therefore open to being manipulated. One of the key arguments which justifies any advertising is that a producer simply offers the potential customer information about their product and leaves it up to the customer to decide whether or not they want to buy the product. This argument relies on the idea that the customer is able to make a free choice and is able to resist being manipulated too strongly by the advertisement. It could be argued that this is not the case for children. In many countries laws exist which specify that children are unable to consent to certain things, such as sexual relations or which parent they want to live in the event of a divorce. These laws exist because it is assumed that most of the time children do not know what is best for them and therefore choices should be made for them by people who are deliberately acting in their best interest and who know the best way to achieve these interests. Advertising to children goes against this thought, as it assumes that children are capable of entirely making up their own minds and are therefore not being exploited by those who attempting to convince them to buy their product. Although it could be argued that any producer has the right to advertise their product, it is possible to advertise children’s products to adults, who may decide that they want their child to have the product. However, advertising directly to children assumes that they have the capacity for consent which is ruled out in most other cases involving children and other decisions.
It could also be argued that advertising to children is ethically wrong because it places a burden on parents and can disrupt parent / child relationships. The vast majority of children do not have access to money of their own, and if they do this money usually comes in the form of an allowance from their parents or their guardians. As children do not have access to money themselves then it is parents who must buy any products which they wish to posses. It is recognised that advertisements can have the effect of creating a strong desire in children who believe that they simply must get the latest toy or games console and that they are capable of exerting a large amount of pressure on their parents in order to make this happen. Many parents do not have access to large amounts of money and having a child who desperately wishes to have something which they simply cannot afford can be very stressful and can have a negative effect on the parent’s relationship with their child. As children are usually seen as unable to make up their own minds and are therefore manipulated by advertising into wanting something which they almost certainly do not need, and as this desire can have a very negative effect on parent / child relationships in cases where children will resent their parents inability to provide them with the toys that they have been manipulated into wanting, then it once again seems that advertising to children is ethically unacceptable.
Another reason why it seems that advertising to children is ethically wrong is that is can create and exacerbate social cliques and hierarchies in school and other social situations. Advertising to children relies on both manipulating their desire and also on fostering a sense of entitlement whereby they believe not only that they must have a product but also that they have a right to it. If they cannot get that product, usually because their parents cannot afford it or do not want to give it to them, then they are likely to develop a sense of resentment. Children from poorer families are likely to become noticeably poorer and therefore less socially accepted than those peers whose parents are able to afford all the toys which they desire. This is likely to exacerbate any already existing divisions in the child’s social situation and could therefore lead to bullying and isolation for children who are rich enough, and therefore not considered ‘cool’ enough, to take part in certain social groups. Once again, a producer may simply argue that they have to the right to sell their product to its intended consumer, however in the case of child this consumer is not free to choose whether or not they want the product and is likely to be cynically manipulated rather than persuaded or informed. The effects of this manipulation can be negative for both the children who are able to respond to the advertising and to those who are not.
It could also be argued that advertising to children is morally wrong because the majority of products marketed for children, especially for those over a very young age, have been proven to have negative social and health effects. Examples include fizzy drinks, sweets and games consoles which have links to such things ADHD and other anti-social behavioural problems. While there would be no strict ethical problem with advertising a product known to be harmful, such an advertising would have to rely on the consumer knowing and understanding the negative effects and choosing to use or consume the product anyway. As this paper has argued previously, this cannot be the case when one’s consumers are children who do not posses the faculty of free choice or judgment to the same extent as adults. It would be possible to advertise any potentially harmful product to adults, who may then decide that they want their child to have it.
In conclusion this paper has argued that advertising to children is ethically wrong and socially unacceptable. The main reason for this is that children do not posses a capacity to choose what is in their best interest and that therefore any advertising aimed directly at them can only be purely manipulative. Although there are economic arguments which may state the necessity of selling as much of a product as possible, these arguments do not require that products be advertised to children and children’s products could still be sold even if they were solely advertised to their parents. Therefore, advertising to children should be more strictly regulated.