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Sowing the wrong oats

What exactly are three major US cereal manufacturers - General Foods, General Mills, and Quaker Oats - trying to accomplish by encouraging young children to play games of chance? Not only are some cereal boxes now being stuffed with tickets on drawings for various arcade and video game products, but the three firms are vying with each other to advertise such contests on television.

The contests vary. One cereal box, for example, contains an intricate ''game of chance'' ticket that can be read with a small magnifying device included in the box. And if the ''contestant'' loses, well, no trouble; he or she can send in a special coupon for a second chance at a later time.

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Over the years cereal firms have often added free ''surprises'' or special offers on items (such as a ring) in their boxes. But the introduction of games of chance tickets is something quite different. The motive in such a dubious business is clear: to sell as much cereal, mainly sugared cereals, as possible.

But have the companies really considered the long-range implications of what they are doing - encouraging young children to gamble?

The advocacy group Action for Children's Television (ACT) is on solid ground in urging the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission to take action against the egregious TV ads used to promote these contests. ACT argues that the commercials ''unfairly and deceptively'' misrepresent ''the probability of winning.'' It is disturbing that no action has yet been taken, even though the first complaint with the FTC was filed last December.

The complaint is justified. Recent TV ads, for example, have suggested that a certain number of children ''can'' win a prize. To an adult, the word ''can'' has a conditional connotation, i.e., something may or may not occur. But as ACT president Peggy Charren points out, the word has quite a different meaning to young children.When young children are told that they ''can stay up late,'' that suggests something certain; a promise. Such a distinction - between that which is conditional and that which is certain - is not lost on the advertising community, which is particularly sensitive to nuances of language. One TV ad uses the word ''win'' four times in 30 seconds.

Given the fact that cereal manufacturers direct many of their products at youngsters, they ought to exercise the greatest possible responsibility. The ''games of chance'' campaigns are hardly that. Kellogg, to its credit, has no such promotions. Gambling imposes a terrible burden on American society, in terms of crime, personal debt, disrupted family life, lost days at work, and often-wrenching emotional problems. Is that what some cereal makers want to promote?

Introducing impressionable young children to gambling by way of their favorite breakfast cereal is an example of cynical commercialism.

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