Where do demands on the industry end and parental ones begin? By
Child ’pester power’ - where children who have been specifically
targeted with commercial messages harass their parents into buying the
product - is either a monster let loose on parents by the British
advertising industry or a beast so heavily chained down by regulations
that its influence is as potent as the Wizard of Oz.
Whether you believe ’pester power’ to be a genuine issue or a hobbyhorse
for political correctors won’t necessarily depend on whether you work in
the industry or are an interested observer. The question has always
provoked a degree of unease inside agencies.
’I’ve never been able to work on a toy account without feeling pangs of
guilt,’ one leading creative admits. Another says: ’The rate at which
mass marketers encourage children to consume frightens me. I find it
Some agencies prefer to stay out of the controversy completely. Abbott
Mead Vickers BBDO has no toy business. ’We’ve always fought shy of it,’
Jackie Boulter, the agency’s planning director, confirms. ’It’s not
something with which we feel comfortable.’
Mr Justice Bell, summing up at the end of the 313-day High Court libel
action brought by McDonald’s, made it clear he was uneasy, accusing the
fast food chain of exploiting children through its advertising
(Campaign, last week).
That McDonald’s should have been singled out for criticism has caused
dismay in the industry, particularly as the European tide seems to be
running in favour of advertisers.
Last week, Sweden, which outlaws TV advertising to children under 12,
had moves to block such commercials beamed from outside its borders
declared illegal by the European Court.
Moreover, McDonald’s hardly qualifies as a serial offender. It once fell
foul of the Advertising Standards Authority when a franchise in Northern
Ireland addressed a mailshot to a child, while the Independent
Television Commission expressed disquiet two years ago about a Leo
Burnett ad in which a boy engineers a meeting between his estranged
parents in a McDonald’s restaurant.
’This has to be an industry-wide debate on how you should advertise
responsibly,’ a senior McDonald’s executive says. ’We argue that the
organisation is a responsible advertiser that meets all legal
requirements and follows its own code of practice.’
Certainly, the judge’s observations failed to impress senior industry
figures. ’They were remarkably inappropriate and injudicious and have
nothing to do with the judgment,’ Lionel Stanbrook, the Advertising
Association’s deputy director-general, complains.
Nevertheless, the ’McLibel’ case has put ’pester power’ firmly back on
the agenda and forced the industry to re-examine its collective
A welcome development, some believe.
Meanwhile, the National Food Alliance, the pressure group campaigning
for heavier restrictions on the advertising of sweets and snack foods to
children, will be urging Chris Smith, the National Heritage Secretary,
to call on the ITC to review its codes.
The problem is determining what makes an ad exploitative of
ITC and ASA regulations forbid any advertising that exhorts children to
ask their parents to buy a product for them.
Indeed, one of British advertising’s most memorable copylines - ’Don’t
forget the fruit gums, mum’ - would not be allowed under current
Nor do they permit advertising that makes children feel inferior if they
don’t have the product.
Sue Dibb, the NFA’s project officer, claims that while advertisers may
be following the letter of the codes, they are not observing their
Commercials can often be so persuasive that the message to children gets
through, she says.
Tightening the codes, however, would force the ITC into making highly
subjective judgments. ’It would be difficult for the ITC but that’s what
it’s there for,’ Dibb argues. ’We feel advertisers are given the benefit
of the doubt unless they blatantly flout the rules. We’d like to see the
balance swinging in favour of consumers.’
The question is where advertisers’ responsibilities end and those of
’If parents have become so wimpish that they can’t stand up to their
children and are putting the blame on advertising, that’s a sorry state
of affairs,’ John Hooper, director-general of the Incorporated Society
of British Advertisers, remarks. ’I believe parents are tougher than
that. Are we saying that if there were no advertising pestering would
The major problem is deciding where the line should be drawn. As Winston
Fletcher, the former Advertising Association chairman, puts it: ’Any ad
for a toy and many ads for food products appeal to children without
encouraging them to pester parents. The only way out is to ban ads for
any product a child might like and that’s manifest rubbish.’
Boulter even suggests that ’pester power’ can have an upside. Better,
she says, that children will pester for a nutritious breakfast cereal
they have seen advertised on TV than no cereal at all.
Whatever the rights and wrongs, the big fear among advertisers and their
agencies is that Mr Justice Bell has just handed their detractors a
powerful new weapon. ’It’s a serious issue as advertising regulations
threaten to tighten across the world,’ Dan O’Donoghue, the Publicis
planning chief, warns. ’We have to defend in depth.’