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In Loco Parentis
It's watchdog versus watchdog in the battle for the souls of our nation's children. On one side there is the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU), a children's advertising watchdog supported by three ad industry associations and the Council of Better Business Bureaus. On the other side are a number of consumer watchdog groups including the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and Commercial Alert, founded by Ralph Nader.

According to the lead story on the front page of the Business section of February 27, 2005 issue of The Washington Post, CARU and the other watchdogs are all trying to prevent children from being unduly swayed by advertising aimed at children. An advertising official described CARU, as "an active cop on the beat." CARU's supporters note that over the past two years, advertisers complied with all but six of the self-regulatory organization's 222 requests for changes in commercials. CARU critics claim that the group has nowhere near the staff and resources needed to adequately police industry promotional activities aimed at children.

Critics of CARU also argue that the organization only looks at advertising, not at online games, school promotions and play programs at toy stores. According to the Post article, CARU guidelines "note that the appearance of a live or animated character such as SpongeBob SquarePants 'can significantly alter a child's perception of the product,' but they do not restrict the use of these characters in either the ads or the products themselves."

A CSPI official's response to the CARU guidelines is that "If characters are all that powerful, they shouldn't be used at all." Winston can just imagine the Federal Register proposing to define when a cartoon character become too "powerful" to be used in advertising. It would sounds like the plot for a new cartoon series.

Much of the debate over children's advertising is supposedly related to nutritional issues. For example, an industry official challenges critics to provide "a direct and causal link between children's advertising and childhood obesity." However, the real issue at hand is not protecting children from advertisers, it is protecting parents from their children. CSPI and similar groups don't seem to be aware that it is the parents' duty to play the key role in determining what their children see and what they eat. Instead, these groups favor actions that would protect parents from having to endure the wrath of a six year old child by telling them "no." No, you can't watch that show; no, you can't have that toy; no, you won't be eating that product.

Instead of putting parents front and center where they belong when it comes to their kids' diets and exercise, the consumer groups are more interested in channeling the spirit of Aldous Huxley. Oh what a wonderful brave new world it will be when children can think only pure, safe, government-approved thoughts.


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