The global attack on advertising to children draws broad battle lines. As proposed by the European Parliament Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection on July 19, 2011, the draft agenda for 2012 demonstrates a distrust of advertising generally, not just in relation to marketing of food products. The Committee has proposed a ban on all advertising on television and on “direct advertising towards children under the age of 12.” The European lawmakers are basing their proposal on the reasoning that “children are children” and not “consumers.” The report does not explain this rationale.
What about teenagers? Are they “consumers”? Can they make informed choices? At what age exactly does one make “informed choices” about things like which toy to desire, which sneakers to admire, which brand of yogurt to crave, or which activity to yearn for? And, when does a person learn how to discern the difference between a commercial and non-commercial speech? Furthermore, is it possible to restrict advertising to just children under the age at which they cannot appreciate the persuasive nature of advertising? How many media are segmented so clearly that one can be assured that a ban targeting children under 12 will not restrict advertising to those 12 years old or older?
These questions are the same as those that are being researched and discussed in the United States, most recently in the context of the Interagency Working Group Proposal on Food Marketing to Children, which includes a proposal to extend restrictions (not a ban) to marketing activities directed to those 17 years of age or younger. The primary difference, mentioned by many commenters in response to the IWG’s request for comments, is that in the United States, commercial speech is protected by the U.S. Constitution. Without that civil right, Europeans are vulnerable to governmental intervention that can chill truthful, informative speech and deny members of a consuming public – including children and adolescents – exposure to a world with choices and persuasive forces. Proposals for advertising bans such as the one in Europe may promote an extension of childhood ignorance and deny children the tools and experience by which they, along with their parents, can begin to discover what it means to be a discerning member of society.