Despite the findings of a substantial body of research supporting the notion of a vulnerable child audience, the controversy about appropriate marketing to children goes on. At the heart of this controversy is disagreement about the actual nature and extent of effects on children in real world marketing contexts. For instance, researchers have investigated such things as the effects of host selling, animation, and program separators on children's understanding of selling intent and purchase requests (e.g. Hoy, Young, & Mowen, 1986; Kunkel, 1988).

Despite the findings which support the notion of a vulnerable child audience, industry responses to claims of negative effects often point to the adequacy of self-regulatory efforts to prevent any possible harm or call for more parental involvement to mediate negative effects on their children. Indeed, some within the industry would argue that a greater injustice would be done by abridging advertisers' First Amendment rights through limiting the types and amounts of marketing materials when harmful consequences to children are not categorically proven. For instance, Rossiter (1980) agreed with the principle that "nothing should be censored unless it can be demonstrated to have consequences that are harmful to others" (p. 270).

In this paper I will employ theory of justice, deontological and virtue theory to describe ethical issues in marketing to children; however, my primary focus will be based upon the contingency approach. Although deontological, justice and virtue approaches undoubtedly have merit in assisting marketers to reflect on the ethics of their decisions those theories are less satisfactory in providing definitive ethical evaluations of specific practices (Dunfee, Smith, and Ross, 1999, p. 28). Besides, unlike contingency theory, those approaches do not specifically address the complex interplay among consumer characteristics, product types, and marketing strategies.
Although acknowledging potentially harmful effects on child audiences, those within the advertising, media, and consumer products industries have typically balked at calls for them to take responsibility for such unintentional effects.

They point to their rights to advertise in the open marketplace and the good that marketing does in capitalistic economies by stimulating demand and raising standards of living. They also point to the support they provide the media. Indeed, without marketing, some would argue, there would be no children's programming at all (Thompson, 1995, p. 182). Hite and Eck (1987, p. 44) found that respondents from large business firms had favorable attitudes toward marketing to children. They believe it provides useful information on new products and does not disrupt parent-child relationships because of purchase requests. The business leaders in this study said that although children might be at a disadvantage in viewing advertising, there is little they can do to change the number and types of children's commercials because of the competitive nature of the marketplace (Hite & Eck, 1987, p. 51).

These arguments reflect the values that dominate the cultures of many American corporations--profit and efficiency. These values emanate from the roots of capitalism which claim that the pursuit of individual interests is the only true moral imperative. Kirkpatrick (1986) asserted that "the moral justification of advertising is that it represents the implementation of an ethics of egoism--the communication of one rational being to another rational being for the egoistic benefit of both" (p. 512). Yet, with respect to children and advertisers, the equal rationality of communicators cannot be presumed.

Consideration of the questions of marketing to children through the lens of ethical theories would require business leaders in the marketing industry to seriously reconsider the presumptions discovered by Hite and Eck (1987). Several theories are pertinent to the issue at hand, although Rawls (1971) Veil of Ignorance, with its theory of justice and specific concern for the weakest party in situations of unequal power, seems most appropriate.


Rawls called for all parties to remove themselves from the real circumstances in which they find themselves and put themselves into an "original position," where all social differences are eliminated and all are considered equal members of society (Rawls, 1971, p. 98). In this "original position," no one knows how he or she will fare once the veil is lifted and real life resumes. As social agreements are negotiated in this context of imagined equality, all parties will seek to protect the most vulnerable, because they do not know whether they themselves will emerge from behind the veil as the most vulnerable party. If such moral reasoning were applied to decisions about marketing that affects children, decision makers would no doubt seek to protect the liberties of vulnerable children. Behind the veil, they would see that, as children, they would be at a psychological disadvantage in the economic marketplace and most susceptible to intentional and unintentional advertising effects.

Robin and Reidenbach (1987) suggested a blend of deontology and utilitarianism for any corporation that seeks to behave ethically, not just in marketing-related matters but all spheres of corporate life. Because of its fundamental concerns for individuals, deontological thinking should prevail when individuals' rights are at stake or if there is any potentially serious impact on them. They suggested that even when solid utilitarian arguments can be made, if serious individual effects are possible, deontological thinking should still prevail. Alternatively, when no such threats to individual well being are involved, the utilitarian arguments that are expected and appropriate within capitalistic democracies are acceptable. The argument for serious, although perhaps not life-threatening, effects of marketing on children, has been made. Thus, when children are known to be part of the commercial audience (as they almost always are) deontological thinking will necessarily prevail in marketing decisions.

Does the application of Rawls's Veil of Ignorance or deontological ethics imply that businesses must entirely give up marketing, because children may be harmed by it? Not necessarily. Robin and Reidenbach (1987, p. 55) also proposed virtue theory suggesting that Aristotle's "golden mean" should be applied when actual performance decisions are being made. To Aristotle, virtuous action is a location between two vices--one of excess, the other deficiency. Moderation and temperance are the most appropriate guides to behavior. If we tend toward one extreme, we must push ourselves away from that tendency toward the other extreme, in order to achieve the most appropriate "mean." Regarding marketing and children, companies would not be required to entirely relinquish their messages which serve to support their profit and efficiency values. They would not be able to use any persuasive message without regard for the less sophisticated child audience which may see those messages.

Dunfee, Smith, and Ross (1999) contend that the pluralistic approaches in current marketing ethics research reflect the inadequacy of general theories of marketing ethics to handle the rich and complex context of the marketing function for children (p. 16). Thompson argues that making decisions on the basis of the context-independent general principles while disregarding the contextual details can result in socially irresponsible, and even detrimental, consequences (1995, p. 178). Although most marketing ethics theories, particularly the theory of justice, consider the interests of various parties and complex situations, they have been criticized as too abstract and general to provide adequate guidance for managers (Dunfee, Smith, and Ross 1999, p. 18). Due to the great number of ethical issues inherent in customer relationships and marketing functions, one set of universal rules or principles of ethics may be too simplistic to apply to all marketing situations.

One of the theoretical approaches well suited to analyzing complex interactions among various dimensions of a phenomenon is contingency theory. Rooted in organizational behavior research by Herbert Simon, contingency theory deals with the effect of interactions among various organizational and environmental factors on performance outcomes (1976, p. 88). According to Zeithaml, Varadarajan, and Zeithaml, contingency theory emphasizes the importance of situational influences on the management of organizations and questions the existence of a single best way to manage (1988, p. 40). Contingency theory contributes to practical management by encouraging managers to: 1) identify important contingency variables that distinguish between contexts, 2) group similar contexts based on the variables, and 3) determine the most effective solution for each group (Zeithaml, Varadarajan, and Zeithaml, 1988, p. 60).


According to contingency theory, targeting and integrated marketing to vulnerable consumers such as children is positive as long as the products are beneficial, and may be meaningful in some product categories. Children, due to their body size and stage of mental development, are often targeted with beneficial products and features such as specially formulated medications, safety caps for medication containers, and educational toys. Targeting beneficial products at children mostly receives positive ethical evaluation (Smith and Cooper-Martin, 1997, p. 3). Based on the concept of social responsibility, many businesses provide beneficial products to vulnerable and disadvantaged consumers, such as charitable donations to those who are weak and poor. Social marketing programs also target beneficial products at these consumers, such as free vaccinations for the children of poor families, and low interest rate mortgages for households with limited income. Marketers should receive positive evaluations from the public for these goodwill practices that contribute to consumer well being.

On the other hand, contingency theory suggests that marketing to children can be harmful. In an overview of his numerous content studies, Barcus (1981) observed that more than 80% of all advertising to children fell within just four product categories: toys, cereals, candies, and fast-food restaurants (p. 275). Another pattern that has held constant over time is the seasonal variation in product advertising that occurs each year during the pre-Christmas months. During this period, toy commercials gain a much larger share of the market, jumping from their normal rate of about one in every four or five commercials to half or more of all ads in children's programs at Christmas time (Kunkel & Gantz, 1994, p.141). This increase in toy advertising generally displaces commercials for cereals and candy/snacks, which then reemerge after the holidays in their normal volume.

Most of the foods advertised to children are for highly sugared products, such as presweetened cereals, candy, snacks, cookies, and sodas; few commercials advertise any healthy foods (Kunkel & Gantz, 1994, p. 143). The propensity of advertising to children to feature unhealthy foods has been linked to a number of negative outcomes, including a lack of understanding of proper diet and nutrition as well as obesity in childhood (Strasburger, 2001, p. 186). Similarly, the advertising of toys, particularly at Christmas time, has been associated with increased purchase-influence attempts that trigger parent-child conflict when parents cannot honor all of their child's product requests (Robertson, 1979, p.14).

Another common feature of marketing to children is the use of product disclosures and disclaimers. For example, the phrase “part of a balanced breakfast” is included in most cereal ads to combat the concern that sugared cereal products hold little nutritional value for children. Atkin and Gibson (1984) found that less than one in three 4- to 7-year-olds had any idea what the term “balanced breakfast” means (p. 38). Rather than informing young viewers about the importance of a well-rounded nutritious breakfast, this common disclaimer actually leaves many children with the misimpression that cereal alone is sufficient for a meal (Palmer & McDowell, 1981, p. 300).

Children's understanding of disclosure statements is greatest when both audio and visual formats are employed to convey the qualification message (Palmer & McDowell, 1981, p. 299). However, only about one of every five children's commercials with a disclosure uses this approach (Kunkel & Gantz, 1994, p.144). Cereal commercials most commonly employ an audio-only strategy to convey the “balanced breakfast” information, whereas toy ads rely primarily on visual disclosures in textual form. These findings regarding children's interpretation of disclosures and disclaimers in television commercials underscore the importance of considering how children of different ages make sense of advertising messages. Therefore, when marketing products that are potentially harmful, it is important that marketers examine the characteristics of their target markets and establish guidelines which shape the content of advertising of such products to children or use extreme caution to avoid marketing such products.

In conclusion, children are a particularly sensitive audience for advertising because of their limited ability to recognize the nature and purpose of commercial messages. The commercial advertisements directed to children are limited primarily to four product types: toys, sugared cereals, candy/snacks, and fast-food restaurants. The appeals employed to promote these products offer little information to help evaluate the product, focusing instead on efforts to make the merchandise appear fun and attractive to the child. Product disclosures and disclaimers, which are presented ostensibly to help protect the consumer, are not easily comprehensible to the intended audience in most advertising to children.


To encourage ethical behavior, companies and industry organizations have established codes of ethics. Many companies have been relatively passive in examining their positions in marketing ethics and are still operating according to traditional business models and processes that do not consider consumer interests and the ethical implications of their actions as critical issues. Moreover, some businesses consider that establishing limiting their marketing to children is the violation of their constitutional rights. The ethical implications of marketing activities often remain afterthoughts, and are yet to be systematically incorporated into management decision-making. The contingency framework can facilitate this preemptive approach to ethical decision-making. Contingency theory can also serve as a framework for public policy makers to analyze the ethical implications of marketing activities. While public policy makers should certainly protect the rights of marketers in a free market economy, they must also consider the interests of consumers, particularly those with various degrees of vulnerability, such as children.

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