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Taking the Sexy Back: The Coming Crackdown on Provocative Kids' Clothing

The next regulatory frontier for advertisers and retailers -- at least internationally -- will be pressure to ban the marketing of "sexy" products to children. Consider:

The move to regulate the sexualization of childhood by advertisers has gained most traction in Britain, where the Bailey Review -- a government quango -- will make policy regulations for restricting the inappropriate advertising of children's products.

Advertising's best-kept secret
In the U.S., which has a far larger children's advertising market, Madison Avenue will be furious to learn that the British ad lobby group the Advertising Association has published a "secret" that many in the business have spent decades suppressing or refusing to acknowledge: That children are not cognitively able to understand what advertising is, and why it's different from other forms of play or entertainment. The AA's report to the Bailey Review says:

The findings from the literature review commissioned from Dr Barbie Clarke* by Credos in 2011 indicate that children can recognise advertising at an early age (4 or 5), though they are unable to make judgements about advertising and marketing until they reach middle childhood (8-12), and it is not until they reach adolescence, that is 12 plus, that they are able fully to understand about the commercial intent of advertising.
The FTC reached a similar conclusion in the 1970s, and has never acted upon it. Once you know that kids under 8 can't understand that advertising is an argument and not a set of facts, it becomes difficult to maintain that it should remain legal: If kids can't understand that an ad is not a set of instructions -- and the adults behind the ads know that kids don't understand that -- then all children's advertising is arguably inherently deceptive.

It's all in your head
Even Alex Bogusky of top ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky called for a ban on advertising to the under-8s. Less than a year after he published that opinion in a manifesto about the "destructive" nature of advertising to children, Burger King fired his former agency. Like I said, this is not information that gets said aloud very often in the ad biz. (Even the Jonas Brothers exploit their under-age audience's privacy rights.)

The traditional defense of advertisers caught trying to dress children like prostitutes is that it's all inside your filthy adult mind. A&F said so during Thong-gate in 2002:

"The underwear for young girls was created with the intent to be lighthearted and cute," the company said. "Any misrepresentation of that is purely in the eye of the beholder."
American Apparel (APP) trotted out the identical argument last year in defense of its ads featuring "barely legal," under-age-looking models.

The U.S. advertising lobby's terrific track record of fending off advertising restrictions -- coupled with the First Amendment, of course -- will probably prevent legal restrictions on the further Bratz-ification of the American child. But it is not hard to see anti-business leftists and social conservatives in the Tea Party finding common ground in their opposition to making little girls look like streetwalkers. The solution is self-regulation, probably through bodies like the Children's Advertising Review Unit.

That self-regulation needs teeth, however. May I suggest that those teeth come in the form of old-fashioned shunning, the Old Testament practice of refusing to speak to people whose morals are beyond the pale? Imagine how quickly A&F CEO Mike Jeffries would remove his bizarre children's clothing from A&F's shelves if, for a designated week, no one returned his calls.

*Yes, that's her real name.
Hat tip to Jezebel.

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