The European Union has just poured more than 18 months of effort
and considerable resources into finding out what any decent researchers
could have concluded in a morning's work. Namely, that further
restrictions on advertising to children are unnecessary.
Indeed, the best that can be said about the 1,000-plus pages of analysis
spewed out last week by the EU Directorate-General for Education and
Culture, is that it's weighty enough to sink a Swedish plan to extend
its national ban on children's TV advertising across Europe.
Realistically, Sweden's chances of using its six-month EU presidency to
railroad through such a contentious piece of legislation were always
slim. And when Viviane Reding, the EU Commission member responsible for
education and culture, declared her opposition to a ban, the coup de
grace was delivered.
As a result, Sweden is now on the back foot. Where once it evangelised
the moral argument for an EU-wide ban, it must now defend the case for
maintaining its own restrictions when they are a clear impediment to the
creation of a true European single market.
This isn't to say the debate about advertising and its effect on
children is not an entirely valid one. It's just that the EU seems to
have taken a sledgehammer to crack a nut - only to find the nut had no
need to be hit in the first place.
Yet, despite the tortuous route adopted by the EU in reaching its
conclusion, the outcome is an excellent one for Europe's advertising
industry and may prove a defining moment in the way it defends its
interests in future.
What distinguishes this campaign from others is that the industry did
more than merely hurl back the mud thrown at it by its opponents. In
confronting an emotive issue that polarises opinion, lobbyists wisely
concentrated on taking the heat out of the debate and building a body of
research to counter the perpetual charge against them that 'they would
say that, wouldn't they?'.
Not only did they present a compelling case, arguing that a ban would
force the abandonment of quality children's programming in favour of
imported pap, but they succeeded in convincing EU politicians and
Not that this victory should breed complacency. While the threat of an
EU-wide ban may have subsided, Britain's Food Standards Agency has made
little secret of its wish for further restrictions. One more reason why
the self-regulatory system needs ongoing support from within if it is to
retain respect and confidence from without.