Close-Up: Is adland guilty of sexualising kids?

There is a fear that the industry could be blamed for the transgressions of others, John Tylee says.

It's doubtful that adland need get its knickers in a twist over what appears to be a renewed attempt by MPs to stop advertisers highjacking childhood by selling sexy underwear and pole-dancing kits to small girls.

For one thing, any company attempting to run such promotions would have the Advertising Standards Authority coming down on it like a ton of bricks. For another, the number of complaints to the watchdog about ads that allegedly sexualise children have numbered no more than a handful in recent years.

Which is why - at first glance - the Commons motion signed by 18 MPs from all parties calling for a ban on "sexualised media, marketing and products aimed at or easily accessible to children under 16" seems curious.

Advertising Association executives, whose job it is to monitor such Parliamentary goings-on, are at a loss to fully explain it even though they acknowledge what outrage the issue can generate. Particularly when high-street stores and internet retailers get caught selling thongs and hotpants with "California Babe" posted across the bottom to girls as young as seven.

The motion seems, in part, to have been prompted by the Mothers' Union's Bye Buy Childhood campaign launched in September to "hold the UK government accountable" to its pledge to address the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood.

The motion appears to give the campaign fresh impetus by reminding David Cameron to ensure the commercialisation of childhood is on the agenda of his Childhood and Families Ministerial Task Force.

However, there seems little concern within the Cameron administration that advertising is fuelling the problem.

Damian Collins, the former M&C Saatchi executive turned MP, is the director of the Conservative Creative Industries Network.

He says: "I get no sense of a groundswell of opinion within the Government that's critical of the ad industry. I think its concern - and that of the Prime Minister - is more about products that are inappropriate for children rather than the advertising of them."

In fact, the ASA has upheld complaints against only three promotions alleged to have sexualised children since February 2007. One was for a catalogue by the company No Added Sugar featuring children in make-up modelling clothes. Another was a banner ad for the Spanish-based NH Hoteles group showing a bikini-clad girl with her hand on her hip. The third was a magazine ad for American Apparel showing a girl partially naked.

The AA's concern is that politicians should not confuse what are acceptable commercial messages to children with products that exploit sex to sell to them. Nevertheless, it is aware that it will continue to have blame heaped upon it for others' transgressions in areas that are beyond its power to control. One of the reasons for extending the ASA's remit to online marketing is to increase the protection of children from harmful advertising.

Privately, ad industry leaders fume at suffering part of the backlash over the explicit nature of the editorial in some magazines read by pre-teens and the amount of X-rated lyrics in popular music.

"Just look at some of Lady Gaga's stuff," one complains. "She's one of the most downloaded artists in the world and yet if what she was doing was called marketing, you wouldn't be able to run most of it on TV until after the 9pm watershed. It's very difficult to see what can be done about this."

AGENCY - Jon Tipple, head of planning, McCann London

"The sexualisation of children is a serious subject but it's an issue for society and not just for advertising.

"Because advertising always seeks to provoke a reaction, it will always be high profile and attract the attention of MPs who want to be seen to be doing the right thing.

"Children have always been used extensively in advertising, particularly because they remind people of a more innocent age that they like to hark back to. But there's a thin line between what's cute and what's sexual and if advertisers overstep the mark, they deserve to be censured.

"In the end, though, it's about parental responsibility."

REGULATOR - James Best, chairman, Credos; chairman-elect, Committee of Advertising Practice

"I don't know why the issue is being raised in the Commons at this particular time, although the question of the sexualisation of children is a perennial one.

"That's because so much has changed in society over the past 20 or 30 years to the time today when sexual imagery is so widely available. And the degree of disquiet about it has been heightened by the number of online channels.

"That's part of the reason why the Advertising Standards Authority's remit has been extended to cover online activity.

"If research points to ongoing public concern about this, then we need to understand why."

AGENCY - Greg Delaney, chairman, DLKW Lowe

"The sexualisation of children in advertising is less of a problem than elsewhere because it's subject to so many checks and balances both internally and externally.

Our commercials have to do much more to prove that they're suitable for viewing than any of the programmes on either side of them.

"To single out advertising for any recent troubles in this area would be incorrect. The behaviour of those who are role models for the young and the overtly sexual content of some teenage magazines are more fruitful areas for censure. The evidence against advertising doesn't stand up."

TRADE BODY - Tim Lefroy, chief executive, Advertising Association

"For all his talk about banning ads that were supposed to sexualise children before he became Prime Minister, all David Cameron could find to criticise when he went on TV were the lyrics of a Lily Allen song. He left advertising completely alone.

"However, we're certainly not being defensive on this. We've just launched the Children's Ethical Communications Kit, an online service helping advertisers to produce responsible campaigns targeting children.

"The service guides them to all the relevant regulations they need to know. And there are an awful lot of them. There would be nothing an ad ban could achieve that isn't covered by the existing rules."

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