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May 11, 2010

Hmm: Obama Wants To Control Marketing of Children's Food & Toys

I say "Hmm" because I'm a lot more conflicted on this than conservative/libertarian orthodoxy would urge.

I passed up on bashing the California law banning toys with Happy Meals, because, again, I'm not sure about this. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing.

I would point out that the rules are different for children, as a general matter, and that it's not necessarily a bad thing to have nanny-state rules for people who really do need nannies and it's not automatically awful to have patronizingly protective rules for those who do actually need a pater.

My thing is this: Most advertising is a direct pitch to the buyer. The Sham-Wow and Snuggie guys pitch their products to me. The state has little interest in regulating such advertising, except to patrol for fraudulent claims and so forth.

But products for children are not advertised to the person actually making the purchasing decision, by and large. Instead, the advertising is directed to the child, who in turn lobbies the parent who will actually make the purchase.

I don't have kids but friends do and they are very stringent about how often their kids can watch TV. And whenever they're allowed to watch kid's shows, they're invariably bombarded with commercials for cereals with very high sugar content. Which these friends pretty much forbid their kids from having.

Well -- sort of. Their rule used to be they wouldn't buy their kids high-sugar cereal. They have relaxed that rule -- and I doubt very much it's because they've suddenly decided that high-sugar diets are a good thing. It's because their kids made a big issue of high-sugar cereals, and they relented, to keep a little peace in the house.

This strikes me as dirty pool, or at least potentially dirty pool, given that the advertising here does not seek to persuade the buyer, but rather persuade an immature mind to make trouble and act up and whine and cry until the actual buyer gives in.

In a way it's a little like subliminal advertising. Generally we'd say it's dirty pool to influence a buyer with subliminal advertising. (Assuming it worked, which it might not, but assume for the point of this analogy that subliminal advertising did work -- would that be fair? Would it be objectionable to pass laws forbidding it?)

Kids' advertising doesn't even have that kind of subtlety; if you're kid starts screaming bloody murder that he wants Sugar-Fortified Choco-Bombs in the market, you're probably going to wish your kids' retransmission of the advertising meme was subliminal. The pleadings and demands for Sugar-Fortified Choco-Bombs are going to be painfully superliminal.

There is a libertarian answer to this: Just be a stronger, tough-lovier parent and ignore the kid. Or Just never allow him to watch kids' TV shows. Or a raft of other Just don'ts, as if those are easy to enforce, or as if it's fair to demand that everyone undertake affirmative actions to negate the sorta-dirty-pool actions of other people.

For me, that's a bit like the silly dodge of saying Just wear ear-muffs when the subject of local noise ordinances come up. Sure, if my upstairs neighbor wants to turn his 100 watt subwoofers up to 11 and play dance music every night, I could undertake a whole bunch of libertarian, non-authoritarian actions to check him, such as paying him my own money to not play loud music, or spending thousands of dollars to beef up the ceiling with noise-dampening material, or moving out of the apartment altogether, or wearing earmuffs whenever I'm home.

Sure, I could do all those things. Know what? I'd rather just have a law on the books and be able to drop dime on him when he gets out of control about things.

Point is: I often find the libertarian response to such difficult questions about the use of state-authorized or state-executed coercion to be glib and unconvincing when it comes to a lot of things like that. There are a whole pile of Just do this and Just do that responses, but all of them require that I forfeit some of my own personal liberty (to not Just do this and to not Just do that) in order to, fetishistically I think, protect this other guy's own absolute liberty.

There's no getting around it, in my Noisy Neighbor situation: Either one or the other party will be forced, whether by state action or private action, to give up some of his own liberty. Libertarians almost always favor keeping the state out of it -- a wise impulse, but again, let's not get fetishistic about it -- but that means in my hypothetical that I, the neighbor bothered by noise, must give up a fair amount of my own liberty in order to make sure Joe Subwoofer keeps each and every quantum of his.

And bringing this around to advertising to children: Yes, I suppose that I, were I a parent, could Just Do This and Just Do That to shield myself from the fact that advertisers, keeping all of their libertarian freedom to advertise whatever products they choose in however manner they see fit, will target my kids in order to amp them up and began a quasi-terroristic campaign of whining and crying and general hissiness should I not buy this or that product for them.

On the other hand, I could stop prioritizing the liberty of a company marketing products to my kids, and instead prioritize my own liberty, and take some of their liberty to market x product in y fashion away.

I just don't find the knee-jerk bromides about a creeping nanny-state applicable here. We're not talking about limiting companies' ability to market to fully-formed, legally competent adults. We're talking about influencing immature children to in turn use all their childish wiles to influence their parents to make a purchasing decision. I don't think there is a terribly strong overriding principle that suggests we can't, or that we have to be so respectful of Corporation X's rights and liberties that we have to abandon our own.

There is the general idea that Give 'em an inch, they'll take a mile, and that almost all plans to restrict the liberty adults begins with a Think of the children plan to restrict only stuff involving kids, and I do buy that. But those are slippery slope arguments, and I never find them compelling. If we permit x, y becomes easier to achieve, those arguments go, to which I always respond 1) then you're saying x is relatively unobjectionable in itself and 2) wake me when someone proposes y -- I'll be on your side then, and I imagine a lot of other people will be, too. But I'm having trouble sweating x on its own.

And as for the politics of it: I think it's dangerous, politically, to champion corporate rights to market over parents' rights to raise their kids without a corporation causing them a lot of grief over their decisions. You can toss out a lot of philosophical reasons for making this decision, but where the rubber meets the road, it still seems like you're prioritizing a corporation over a parent. And I don't see that winning a lot of votes.


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posted by Ace at 05:35 PM

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