Many ethical issues surround the subject of influence of media and advertisement on children. The toy industry, for example, is the one that has witnessed tremendous growth in the last few years. It is also known to be the one industry that has stiff competition. Its target market is children who are innocent and vulnerable. Other industries that are involved in the cutthroat aggressive advertisement for their products are the confectionery, food and beverage industries that target children. In the year 2002 year alone, the amount of money that was spent by firms on various forms of advertisements that targeted children, including television, print media, sale promotions online promotions among others, was well above $15 billion (Bernhardt, 2013). Ethics in advertisement means well laid-down principles that govern how communication will take place between the buyer and the seller. This paper seeks to investigate various issues that underlie advertisement to children and interrogate their ethical standing.
Recently, numerous discussions have focused on the potential harm that may result from advertisement that targets children, especially those who are aged below eight years. This harm is caused by the fact that children may not have the ability to comprehend the advertisement fully and distinguish between the truths and exaggerations as well as pure fantasy that may be inherent in these advertisements. Depending on that, the moral question came up whether it is right to expose children to all these when they do not have the ability to make informed choices. In making decisions to advertise to children, the ethical conduct demands for truthfulness in the given information, and the actions taken must be those that respect the dignity of the person. Research has shown that an average American child spends an approximately 5 hours each day watching television or on the internet. Moreover, this can be translated to a child being exposed to about 5 hours of advertisements each week. Approximately 70% of the advertisements that are shown on the television tend to target children aged between five to fourteen years, and these advertisements are found on the television and internet that the children can access. Children have been estimated to account for about $600 billion of family purchases.
Most marketers are also known to target children to cement brand loyalty as early as possible, and this is important in ensuring the survival of their firms (Dubihlela and Dubihlela, 2011). This paper is based on Kant's Moral Theory and Natural Law. This law states that as long as an action is in compliance with what is considered natural for human beings, then the actions are moral. Something is seen as natural if it contributes to the flourishing of humans. When the goal of an action is in line with the goals of human beings, then the action is ethical, but when done to satisfy the purpose of one group in total disregard of the other stakeholders, then the action is unethical. Whenever one reflects on the effects of media and advertisement to children, they go against this law.
On the other hand, the ethical issues surrounding advertising to children are deeply grounded in the societal norms. Societal norms are aimed at the termination of advertisements that target children. However, the supporters argue that advertisement to children is good as it prepares them to be discriminative in their consumption choices from an early age. Arguments against advertisements targeting children hold that the practice of targeting children in advertisement is unethical and unfair since the children in their young minds and with lack of experience cannot have the proper judgment to analyze and discern the real motives of the advertisers, and they do not possess the ability to resist the persuasive language inherent in these advertisement (Ghimire and Rao, 2013). For one to be able to process and evaluate an advertisement, they need some core competencies. First is the ability to be able to discriminate between the non-commercial and the commercial facts of a piece of advertisement. Furthermore, it enables one to be able to distinguish between facts and marketing exaggerations of an advertisement. Secondly, the person must be able to identify the persuasive intentions of the advertiser. Due to their level of cognitive development, children do not possess these two basic abilities. Hence, they tend to take the information in the advertisement as the truthful position. They also do not have the levels of self-control to resist the persuasive appeals in most advertisements. Advertisements play a significant role in the purchasing decision-making process of the children, especially those who are aged below eight years. These children are easily misled by advertisements that exaggerate aspects of the goods that they purchase.
Advertisements that target children have been seen to be unethical, as they have been shown to promote undesirable social values of materialism in the children. The children are exposed to a consumer culture from a very early age, and when they cannot financially cope, then these children are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, and eventually develop low self-esteem. The advertisers’ practice of tapping into the anxieties of children and thrashing them into a consumer market early in their life is considered unethical. Such consumer culture that the advertisements inculcate in the children has increasingly been linked to dissatisfaction and narcissism in children as they are frequently rated by their peers depending on their consumer habits. There has also been a big health impact. Very few advertisements are geared towards pushing healthy foods to children. Instead, most of them advertise junk foods that compromise the health of children due to the sugar and fats in them. The big question is that whether it is ethical to jeopardize the health of children while making billions of dollars in profits. The fast food culture in America has become synonymous with the American children culture and the provision of toys, games and clubs at these fast food outlets is aimed at attracting the vulnerable children.
There has been a considerable debate on the social messages that are passed to the young children through the media. These are not necessarily advertisements. An advertisement must show respect for social responsibility by not only promoting consumption, being full of empty communication and in contrast with the accepted social norms. A case in point is the cartoons that the children watch. Some of the cartoons that are aired on channels that specifically target children are known to display content that is above the judgment of the young minds. Some of the themes are better understood by adults. A case in place is those cartoons that depict romantic content or sorcery, yet they target children aged below ten. There is also the propagation of violence in children, which is reinforced by the cartoons. When they show children that there is no room for dialog when conflicts arise, this becomes the habit that children tend to adopt (Bernhardt, 2013).
Advertising and social responsibility elicit many issues. From ecological point of view advertisements that foster a lavish lifestyle, which propagates wastefulness and, hence the little concern for the environment, raises numerous environmental concerns. Some of the advertisements promote a culture of immediate gratification with little concern regarding influence of people’s consumption habits on the future of the earth's resources. When advertisement reduces the progress of a human being to be limited to their ability to acquire goods and live a lavish life, then there is destruction of the vision of the real value of a person right from the young age, and this is gradually harmful to society as a whole. A society is created that has little care for its environment and each other but is obsessed with creating wealth to sustain their consumer culture. A loss of the respect for cultural, spiritual and moral requirements of a society that are based on one’s consumption power but human dignity leads to the total collapse of the community (Arnas, 2006). When the societal norms are broken, the material abundance and the convenience that technology can provide will end up being unsatisfying if society is broken right from the family level.
In conclusion, while advertisements are critical in marketing of any goods or services that a firm produces, the moral-ethical position is to do it in a manner that does not take advantage of the vulnerabilities of the children due to their inherent weaknesses that are brought about by their young age. While it is primarily the role of the parents to instill good consumer habits in their children, the advertisers also have a moral obligation not to arm twist the parents by exploiting the children’s vulnerabilities. In addition, media content that is targeted towards children should be in line with content that is morally and socially acceptable for children of a given age, and it should not inculcate social ills.