______Risqué Business -- Selling Sex to Children and Teens
______By Janice Shaw Crouse, Ph.D.
Advertising moguls are making millions by assaulting childhood in America. Parents say that
salacious, suggestive advertising targeted to children and teens is making their job harder, if not
impossible. They are, increasingly, unable to protect their kids from subjects and images that the
children aren't emotionally and psychologically ready to handle. ''Kids need to be kids,'' said
Frances Edwards, a New Jersey mother of two daughters. Many haven't even had a boyfriend or
girlfriend, yet they are being accosted by advertising that portrays kids their age as sexy and
seductive, behaving provocatively.
Defenders claim that advertisers have a right to promote their products in the most effective way.
After all, they say, free enterprise is based on businesses making money. Parents who object to
their ads just have to keep inappropriate material away from their children. Mrs. Edwards scoffs at
that idea, ''These ads are unavoidable; if your children don't watch, their friends do. Besides,
suggestive advertising pollutes the culture and makes it much more difficult for parents to teach
their children virtues.''
Innuendo and provocative dialogue is getting more and more blatant. Ads have gone far beyond shock
value; instead of being creative; they have sunk to merely coarse and vulgar. The latest outrage is
a television advertisement by Dippity-Do where viewers overhear a restroom conversation of double
entendres. The producers of the ad claim that it is ''naughty, not nasty,'' but there is nothing
innocent or harmless about cold, calculated exploitation. Nor is there anything admirable about
advertising executives filling their bank accounts at the expense of American children's innocence.
Rather, there is something distinctly disgraceful, no just plain sordid, about companies that are
willing to sacrifice children's well being in order to make big bucks. If the goal is to make money;
never mind the consequences for the nation's children, then anything is all right as long as it is
Sadly, one of the most harmful results of crass advertising is the anxiety it produces in many
children. It is common for pre-teens and teens to experience anxiety about their clothes, skin, hair,
body image and whether they belong. Over the past decade, college counselors say their caseloads
have reached unprecedented levels of bulimia, anorexia, depression, and other anxiety disorders. Do
we really want to stand by passively and allow predatory advertising to push these problems down to
the elementary school level?
Provocative advertising is helping to sexualize our culture. We are sending mixed messages to our
children. We teach girls to develop strength and independence and then we turn them into sex
objects. We teach boys that girls are to be respected and then Dippity-Do releases an advertisement
that snickers go out and ''do'' one.
It is time for adults to be adults and take responsibility for the future of the next generation. The
adult role is to protect kids and guard their childhood. Kids can't be kids unless adults care
enough to be the adult. Everyone talks about caring ''for our children'' yet we are producing an
inescapable cultural climate that is harmful to children. Childhood is a time to dream dreams and
play games. Without childhood, kids miss out on an important stepping-stone toward their full
potential as human beings.
Remember the Joe Camel advertising campaign? Parents were outraged. How dare the R.J. Reynolds
Company promote a product to children known to be harmful to their health? When the tobacco company
refused to regulate itself, parents demanded legislation prohibiting smoking campaigns from targeting
children. With the very real threat of pedophilia, parents must express their outrage at advertisers
who are turning their children into sex objects. Innocence is a fragile thing and once it is lost, it
cannot be regained. It's time to tell Madison Avenue, enough of your second hand smoke screen --
clean up your advertising voluntarily or expect legislation.