KidVid in Context

By Chris Hoofnagle

Posted on June 8, 2018


Forty years ago the Federal Trade Commission did something so shocking and terrible that we continue to hear about it in federal court cases. What was that unforgivable sin? Something called “KidVid.”


KidVid was the Federal Trade Commission’s campaign to rein in advertising to children in the late 1970s. It is a centerpiece in narrative about out of control Washington regulators. But the narrative is more complex than commonly understood. My essay on KidVid, as part of Federal Trade Commission Privacy Law & Policy, elucidates several of KidVid’s important, elided elements. Here are some of the highlights—


Although KidVid was poorly conceived and unlikely to be effective, it was the product of a bipartisan and years-long, incremental campaign to address problematic advertising to children. How problematic? Imagine if you came home to find your children asking for (or taking) vitamins on the advice of a cartoon.


KidVid didn’t just come out of the blue in 1978. Its predicate was a republican-initiated campaign to address ads to children. Spearheaded by Nixon-appointed Chairman Lewis Engman the FTC convened working groups to come to a self-regulatory solution. Engman eventually left the Commission to run for Congress on an anti-regulatory platform, but he saw no conflict between his clichéd campaign themes and interventions on children’s advertising. In fact, he left the Commission saying that he wished more had been done on children’s advertising.


Proof of agency overreach reaches its apogee in a Washington Post institutional editorial, which argued that: “the [KidVid] proposal, in reality, is designed to protect children from the weakness of their parents - and the parents from the wailing insistence of their children. That, traditionally, is one of the roles of a governess - if you can afford one.” Even the left-wing Post hated KidVid! Yet the editorial was conservative; strongly in favor of a parental responsibility narrative. In its simplicity, the Post overlooked the problem’s structural causes. FTC critics never quote the end of the editorial, which suggests a case for sugar warning labels and mandated dental health ads during kids programming.


Image: Volumes of Children's Advertising TranscriptsFinally, to get an idea about why the FTC pursued KidVid, it is useful to examine the record. It is rife with what might be called predation against children. The industry explains its strategy to manipulate children and it reinforces gender stereotypes. My favorite quote: “When you sell a woman on a product and she goes into the store and finds your brand isn’t in stock she’ll probably forget about it. But when you sell a kid on your product, if he can’t get it he will throw himself on the floor, stamp his feet, and cry. You can’t get a reaction like that out of an adult.”


Viewed in larger context, KidVid can be understood as a mask for the anti-regulatory efforts of less charismatic actors, such as used car salesmen and funeral directors that were targeted by other FTC interventions. KidVid offered FTC opponents a topic that fit a “nanny state” narrative about the federal government, one that the news media embraced and helped fan, because the news media itself was concerned about the freedom to advertise.


In some ways, the FTC could be seen as decades ahead with KidVid. Think of just how much modern parents—especially those who, unlike the Washington Post’s Katherine Graham, lack a governess—try to limit sugar intake among children. But here is where KidVid really fails and the Post was right. Limiting national advertising of sugary foods would do nothing to stem the more basic problem that junk food makers can signal to children in the store, or simply displace healthy food so that the only options are junk.


Harari observed in Homo Deus that, “…Marie Antoinette allegedly advised the starving masses that if they ran out of bread, they should just eat cake instead. Today, the poor are following this advice to the letter.” Our regulators stand silently in the face of this despite doubling obesity rates, in part because of the great sin that was KidVid.