PERSPECTIVE: Sweden retreats on children’s TV ad ban but the idea lives on

Short of a flutter on Manchester United winning the championship and Watford dropping through the Premier League’s trapdoor, no bet looks safer than the Swedish government’s failure to secure a Europe-wide ban on TV advertising to children.

Short of a flutter on Manchester United winning the championship

and Watford dropping through the Premier League’s trapdoor, no bet looks

safer than the Swedish government’s failure to secure a Europe-wide ban

on TV advertising to children.



The Swedes’ idealism seems to have foundered on the rocks of European

Union bureaucracy. The wheels of EU institutions grind slowly and a

snowball in hell was always likely to fare better than Sweden’s bid to

win universal support for a ban during its EU presidency next year.



With little preparatory work having been done among EU officials and

with even the most uncontroversial measures taking almost two years to

be agreed, the Swedes have bowed to pragmatism. Getting a ban

incorporated into a revised Television Without Frontiers directive in

2003 is now their declared aim.



All of which makes you wonder whether this was the Swedes’ true

intention all along. Crank up the publicity machine, create lots of good

headlines about protecting the young and vulnerable, and get public

opinion running your way when the first chance emerges of winning

agreement for a ban.



Certainly, there’s little likelihood of a Swedish-inspired prohibition

in the near future. And, given the lack of support for one among the

majority of EU countries, the threat may have disappeared for good.



So what has everybody been getting so worked up about? Have Europe’s ad

industry lobbyists merely been crying wolf about Swedish intentions to

justify their existence while safe in the knowledge that no proposed ban

could survive an EU machine constantly at the mercy of vested

interests?



Not exactly. While Stockholm’s mission to extend its national ban across

Europe looks doomed to short-term failure, the initiative may become a

beacon for all kinds of groups, both informal and official, seeking to

bring advertisers to heel.



The powerful emotions these issues generate and the need for new

government agencies to demonstrate their virility could result in all

sorts of restrictions appearing from left field. Witness the recently

established Food Safety Agency in France whose first action was the

outrageous decision to maintain a ban on British beef in defiance of the

European Commission.



In the UK, the Government has reassured the industry that a ban on TV

advertising to children forms no part of its legislative programme. But

don’t sigh with relief yet.



The new Food Standards Agency may decide it needs to tackle advertising

as part of its crusade to improve diet and nutrition among children. So

could a European Food Safety Agency, which the European Commission has

pledged to establish.



Quite right too, you may think. But using advertising as a tool for

social engineering sets a worrying precedent. After toys and sweets,

what next?



Caroline Marshall is away on maternity leave.



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