A CHILDREN’S CHARTER FOR ADVERTISING - Of course advertisers can target children, Winston Fletcher says But, Richard Phillips counters, let’s try to be more responsible



Should advertising target toddlers? Well, for a start we have little

choice. Kids see posters, publications and, above all, television

whether we like it or not. And more of them watch ’adult’ programmes

than watch those specially transmitted for them. Some 2.5 million

toddlers typically watch EastEnders and Neighbours, compared with about

one million who watch the top children’s programmes. So unless we make

them shut their eyes during every break, they are going to see, and

doubtless be influenced by, commercials.

From about age three onwards, most of them can differentiate between ads

and programmes. They cannot articulate the difference with precision

until they are a couple of years older but, to quote J. H. Goldstein’s

authoritative 1992 study, ’Television Advertising and Children’: ’The

age at which children are found to understand television and advertising

depends upon the method of research used. Research relying upon verbal

responses puts the age of understanding higher (four to seven years old)

than research using non-verbal measures (as young as three years


Either way, by the time they have the remotest likelihood of influencing

purchases they know what ads are there for: to sell. And that leads us

to the next point. Until they get to six or seven, influencing purchases

is the maximum of their power. Tiny Rothschilds, Sainsburys, Gettys and

Gates excluded, not a lot of three- to five-year-olds have deep


Even fewer often shop alone at Harrods or Harvey Nicks. Or anywhere


Even at six or seven their personal disposable wealth is a tad


So their purchasing proclivities have to be filtered through


Sometimes elder siblings, occasionally grandparents, but 99.99 per cent

of the time parents. And parents quickly learn how to get good at

rejecting their infant’s greedier demands.

Moreover, the controls in both print and broadcast media specifically

outlaw ads which encourage children to pester their parents. To quote a

BACC ruling: ’Advertisements must not encourage children to pester or

make a nuisance of themselves to other people. Phrases such as ’Ask

mummy to buy you’ are not acceptable.’

The BACC regulations which control broadcast advertising to children run

to six closely printed A4 pages - dealing with everything from timing

restrictions to safety, from health and hygiene to

testimonials, from good manners to ’sexual provocation’. Not much room

there for advertisers to misbehave.

Nor is there evidence that advertising makes children want categories of

things they would not otherwise have wanted. Anybody who believes kids

didn’t want toys and games, or sweets and chocolates, or fizzy drinks

before advertising was invented should be forced to retake GCSE


Little boys were playing with guns and little girls were playing with

dolls - and t’other way around - long before the goggle box was a

twinkle in John Logie Baird’s eye. In those many countries where

advertising hardly exists they still do. Nor does the advertising of

playthings or sweets increase total demand. Both toys and sweets are

exceedingly mature markets which hardly shift from year to year, apart

from changes wrought by seismic economic movements like recession and


To quote another seminal study, by Dr Brian Young of Exeter University,

which specifically relates to food advertising: ’There is no serious and

methodologically sound evidence that shows food advertising leads to an

increase in the consumption by children of whole categories of foods.’

None of which is intended to deny that ads influence young children.

Of course they do, just as they influence adults. Nor does anybody truly

believe that the outlawing of pestering stops kids begging their parents

for goodies they have seen advertised. But the facts show advertising

mostly persuades children, as it mostly persuades adults, to switch

between alternatives - to choose one toy rather than another, one sweet

rather than another. (Children’s dental health, incidentally, has

improved massively during recent decades, and their calorific intake has

declined over the past 20 years.) A ban on advertising to youngsters

would be pointless and unnecessary.

But it would have certain consequences. First, it would decrease both

the quantity and quality of children’s programmes, as it has in other

countries. While advertisers can, and occasionally do, target children

via adult programmes, it is much more cost-effective to reach them via

their own programmes. If products were stopped from targeting children,

commercial broadcasters would have no incentive to attract child


But the long-term effects of such high-handed paternalism would be still

more detrimental. Kids - young human beings - need to learn that there

are loads of yummy things out there, but they cannot have all of


The countervailing powers of advertising pull and adult restraint

provide a pincer that introduces children to the realities of life. It’s

called growing up. And we all have to do it.

Winston Fletcher is chairman of Bozell UK Group


When we hear on the news that someone - usually a defendant in court -

has a mental age of five (or seven or ten) what are we supposed to


Is it not that the someone in question lacks the maturity or judgment to

act as a responsible adult, and that allowances should therefore be made

for them? And who could argue with that? Someone with the mental

faculties of a child can hardly be expected to make decisions in the

balanced way than an adult might.

You can see what I’m driving at. Children are not able to make informed

decisions. Not in response to the pressures of real life. Not in

response to the pressures of advertising. They do not have the life

experience or the knowledge to discriminate between the value of one

advertising message and another. The bottom line is this: kids are not

fair game.

Of course, you might think there’s a little hypocrisy involved here.

Over the years I’ve been involved in various bits and pieces of

advertising to children and, what’s more, I’m forced to say that if a

nice, juicy script came in tomorrow I’d find it very hard to turn it


So here’s the rub. How do we reconcile the understandable desire for

profit with the uneasy feeling that what we are doing isn’t quite


We begin, of course, by trying to see the other side of the argument,

the one that gets us off the hook.

In this case, without advertising aimed at kids there’d be a lot less

programming aimed at kids. And though much of it may not be very

worthwhile, there’s no denying that kids love Cartoon Network and

Nickelodeon and all the rest. If there was a ban on advertising to

children then a lot of innocent pleasure would be lost.

And another thing. It seems to me that the fundamental argument in

favour of advertising per se is that it stimulates demand. It’s a vital

link in an economically desirable chain of events: more sales leading to

more production and more jobs and lower prices and a greater choice of

products blah blah blah.

And if you accept that, which broadly speaking I do, then doubtless it

is true that what’s good for advertising in general is good for

advertising to kids. In other words, without the increased demand

stimulated by advertising, Barbie wouldn’t be so cheap and there

wouldn’t nearly as many kinds of Barbie. I, for one, can vouch (by

observation, you understand) for the tremendous joy that owning 67 kinds

of Barbie can bring.

And what goes for Barbie must surely go for Action Man and My Little

Pony too. Conclusion: take away the advertising and you take away a lot

of the toys.

You see. I’m really doing my best here to square the circle. I know in

my heart that advertising to children is a wrongfully unbalanced

process, but the industry - and I, as a part of the industry - needs the


So here’s my solution: let us try to give the children to whom we are

selling, some kind of context in which to make their buying


We can’t suddenly give them the life experience of adults but we could

have an educational campaign which would help level the playing


It would be a campaign which set out to explain that strong-minded

people can resist the pressure to buy. For the sake of shorthanding all

this, let’s call it the ’you can say no’ campaign.

I propose that one commercial in every break during children’s airtime

is given over to this campaign. That would still mean about four or five

ads exhorting purchase to one message about making a choice. In the

early evening my campaign would be seen progressively less until not at

all after the nine o’clock watershed. In print media aimed at children

there would be some kind of similar arrangement.

As to the question of who pays for it, there are several


One answer could be every advertiser: because, if the broadcasters were

obliged to carry YCSN spots free, it would surely force up all the other

airtime prices. Alternatively, there could be some of direct levy on all

who advertise to children, or it could be government money. And if none

of the above could be made to work, what about one of the big

advertisers doing something like it as a corporate image campaign. (If

the big tick appeared at the end of the spot, wouldn’t it say something

very positive about Nike?)

Am I being naive in proposing this? Perhaps, but if cigarette ads can

carry counter messages saying the product can kill you, surely it’s not

so absurd. And think of the other advantages: it would show that

self-regulation in advertising can really mean something and, with the

nightmare of Brussels interference just around the corner, that’s no bad


And maybe the YCSN campaign might help children to deal with other

similar pressures - peer group pressure to take drugs, for example. Of

course, you might dismiss all this and insist it is the parent’s job to

say ’No’.

Well those of us with kids know that life ain’t always that simple. Even

so, I would argue that sometimes parental firmness is the only proper

course, hard as it is.

But that doesn’t gainsay the plain and deeply worrying fact that kids

are a soft target. Surely the least we can do is exploit them a little

less ruthlessly.

Richard Phillips runs R. J. Phillips & Company.