ADVERTISING A THREAT TO OUR CHILDREN?: The possibility of an EU-wide ban on advertising to children is real enough, but does the Swedish plan have any merit? Anna Griffiths investigates

Mega hair Sindy is twirling across the TV screen in a blur of peroxide blonde and shocking pink hair, complete with fetching accessories. Next up is the comedian Robbie Gee in a purple suit picking out a Ribena carton from the fridge because the purple packaging matches his suit.

Mega hair Sindy is twirling across the TV screen in a blur of

peroxide blonde and shocking pink hair, complete with fetching

accessories. Next up is the comedian Robbie Gee in a purple suit picking

out a Ribena carton from the fridge because the purple packaging matches

his suit.

These may seem to be innocuous advertising images that punctuate the

melee of children’s TV, but do we know how much of an influence these

have on our children? Are these ads encouraging them to long for things

they don’t need, creating unnecessary brand awareness?

The debate about the effect of advertising on children is set to become

increasingly heated as the time draws nearer for the Swedes to take up

the presidency of the European Union in 2001. Sweden has made it clear

that it will press for an extension of their countrywide ban on all TV

advertising to children across the whole of the EU.

The Swedish argument is simple, as outlined by Lars Maren, deputy

director at the Swedish Minister of Culture, at a recent debate in the

House of Commons on the effects of advertising on children: ’TV

advertising should not be targeted at young children because they do not

understand what advertising is. Consumers must be aware of the nature of

advertising to be able to make informed decisions. As a sceptical adult,

when I see an advertisement I know that it never gives the whole

picture. But children below a certain level of maturity do not know the

difference between TV advertising and TV programmes.’

Since 1991 no ads which set out to attract the attention of children

under 12 years old have been allowed on Swedish commercial TV


The ban is not only limited to toy advertising, but also to food and

drinks advertisers. One of the most widely recognised global advertising

figures, Ronald McDonald, for example, can’t be shown because of his

obvious appeal to young children.

Sweden is not the only country to be sensitive about advertising to


Norway, Belgium, Ireland and Greece have all imposed restrictions, while

Denmark and Poland are considering stepping up their controls. Dutch

public broadcasters are not allowed to sell children’s programme

sponsorship and cannot insert advertising within children’s programmes.

The UK, meanwhile, favours self-regulation, although a fairly stringent

set of rules monitored by the Independent Television Commission, the

Broadcasting Advertising Clearance Centre and Advertising Standards

Authority, help to ensure that advertisers behave themselves. It wasn’t

until the early 90s that the UK commercial broadcasters were able to

find sponsors for children’s programmes.

With a greater sense of responsibility among British advertisers, the

regulatory bodies can take a less draconian tone. Ads such as the 60s

Rowntree’s Fruit Gums campaign, where a little boy repeatedly urges his

mother ’don’t forget the fruit gums, mum’ would be forbidden today,

because it would be classed as encouraging pester power.

Some toy advertisers, such as Fisher Price, have taken it upon

themselves to advertise directly to the parents, rather than the

children. Even the recent set of award-winning ads for Scalextric, by

Lowe Howard-Spink, are squarely aimed at adults rather than children,

mocking men’s boyish aspirations to own a Scalextric set. Parents, after

all, hold the purse strings.

Not surprisingly, the UK advertising industry as a whole is adamant that

there is no reason why children’s TV advertising should be banned.

Lionel Stanbrook, deputy director-general of the Advertising

Association, points out: ’Moral arguments are all too often used as a

way of dodging the fact that the science isn’t there. The major research

I have seen has one thing in common, which is to show that children are

more intelligent than we give them credit for. With this proposed ban we

are dealing with the protection of children expressed in a very

restrictive way.’

There has been copious research conducted on various forms of

advertising, and its impact on children. A comparative study by the AA,

looking at parents’ and children’s attitudes toward diet, advertising

and food advertising in Sweden and the UK, is to be published shortly.

Early indications show some surprising findings. Parents in the UK have

a similar approach towards food advertising as their counterparts in

Sweden, with both significantly underestimating their children’s

understanding of advertising, despite Sweden having no children’s

advertising on its terrestrial TV stations.

Friends of the Earth, which supports the lobby to ban TV advertising to

children under 12 within the EU, points to the fact that British

children are exposed to around 18,000 ads during a year, and toys and

games advertising revenue has increased 500 per cent in the last ten

years. Food campaigners such as Sustain and the Food Alliance argue that

many of the foods advertised to children, products such as crisps, fizzy

drinks and sweets, make up a very small proportion of a healthy


However, a report funded by the AA and carried out by the Psychology

Business in 1994, concluded that advertising aimed at children, and more

specifically food advertising, did not have a significant impact on a

child’s choice of diet. The report stated: ’Television advertising

accounts for only 5 per cent of the influences on family food choice.

Advertising, in other words, is unlikely to be seen as seriously

compromising a healthy diet because it simply does not command enough

influence when seen in the context of other family processes.’ Even the

Swedish government’s own research has found that there is no substance

to the claims that advertising affects the material values, nutrition

and eating habits of children.

But there can be no doubt that TV is a powerful influence on the


In a recent survey conducted by Leo Burnett’s research programme,

Kidscope, it was found that in a group of 600 seven- to 14-year-olds, 59

per cent said they would opt for TV if they could choose just one

medium. But despite the draw of TV, it would be simplistic to assume

that, firstly, they are unduly influenced by TV and secondly, that they

would not find the same information from other sources. Jeffrey

Goldstein, professor of psychology at the University of Utrecht, in a

report for the Toy Manufacturers of Europe in 1994 which looked at

children’s TV advertising, concluded: ’Restrictions in advertising do

not appear to be effective, in part because TV advertising is not the

major influence so many believe it to be. There are also dysfunctions of

censorship, one being to make commercial information from other sources

more desirable, credible and influential.’

Stanbrook argues that children are discerning and are not gullible


’Children are fantastically impatient. If something doesn’t feel or

taste the way it looks in advertising, they won’t try it again.’ This

point is made again and again by advertising agencies, including those

that don’t run children’s advertising accounts out of principle.

Peter Mead, chairman of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, which will not take

children’s advertising, says: ’The problem is that children have

wonderfully retentive minds, so they only have one or two exposures and

they will be able to play it back. But they, more than anybody, will

only try a bad product once.’ Despite AMV’s stance, which was adopted

during the high unemployment of the 70s when the founders felt it was

unacceptable to promote pester power, Mead says: ’We have to be careful

we don’t become Orwellian in a goody-two-shoes way. There’s not a great

deal of evidence that kids’ lives are polluted by advertising.’

Richard Pinder, managing director of Ogilvy & Mather, which numbers the

toy advertiser, Mattel, among its clients, says TV advertising does have

an impact, but it would be unfair to say that it is greater than any

other medium. ’Obviously advertising has an effect - if it’s working

then children are aware and want something. But we ought to recognise

that Play School and their equivalents will also have an effect on

children. There are kids’ magazines and product placements in films such

as Toy Story. These media are as guilty of the same thing.’

The runaway success of products such as the Tamagotchi, the Furby,

Beanie Babies and yo-yo’s, none of which were supported by TV

advertising, shows that children will want things, whether they are

advertised on TV or not.

A common argument among advertisers is that a TV advertising ban would

prevent children developing a proper sense of judgment in a commercial

environment. Robert Campbell, creative director of Rainey Kelly Campbell

Roalfe, says: ’Banning it would be a bit like telling children they

aren’t allow to read and write until they turn 18, and then they have to

do it.’

There are serious concerns about the impact of a TV advertising ban on

the revenue resources of children’s TV stations and children’s

programming in general. Michel Gregoire, secretary general of the

European Group of TV Advertisers, is unequivocal about the impact of a


’It would be awful for the production of children’s programmes. If we

had to face a ban, we would reduce the production of children’s

programmes immediately - there is a direct link between children’s

programming and advertising revenue.’ Since the Greek ban on toy

advertising was imposed in 1994, the AA has noted a 30 per cent drop in

investment in the country’s children’s programming.

In a report published by the media agency, MediaCom TMB, which looked at

the ad revenue implications of the ban in the UK, it was estimated that

a ban could lose ITV up to pounds 70 million in ad revenue, accumulated

through 78 minutes a week of advertising airtime around children’s


The report says GMTV would be one of the worst hit terrestrial

broadcasters, losing up to a third of its advertising revenue. A

spokesman said that, should the ban go ahead, GMTV would have to assess

whether to continue showing children’s programmes at weekends.

The decision by the European Commission earlier this month to abandon

investigations into Greece’s toy advertising ban was a real jolt to the

advertising and toy industry, bringing closer the possibility of a

Europe-wide ban. While evidence of the negative impact of advertising to

children appears rather patchy, the implications of a ban will

nevertheless have to be seriously digested by advertisers and agencies

across Europe.

Adspend on children’s products by medium

                     Total spend %       Breakdown by medium

                          pounds    TV  Press  Cinema  Outdoor  Radio

                        July 98-

                         June 99

Toys                  81,451,766  95.4    4.0     0        0.03   0.6

Snacks                 3,848,427  95.6    3.9     0.5      0      0

Drinks                11,821,840  63.2    5.8     6.1     23.6    1.4

Food/confectionery    10,469,626  97.1    2.8     0        0.03   0.6

Source: MMS


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