Richard Cook investigates the political shenanigans prompted by
The most reviled man within the hallowed walls of the House of Commons
last week was not one of the usual suspects - the two Michaels, Messrs
Howard and Portillo. No, curiously, it was an amiable board account
director at Bates Dorland.
Adam Leigh, who is in charge of the Safeway account at Dorlands, paid
the penalty for having the temerity to defend one of his team’s ads
(Campaign, last week).
The offending commercial was one featuring the supermarket giant’s cute
kids, Harry and his co-star, Molly. But the line that really upset MPs,
and, it should be said, a handful of TV viewers, was Harry’s ‘Looks like
a snog’s out of the question then?’
The Independent Television Commission received 19 complaints from
viewers who found the ads sexually suggestive and thought that it was
inappropriate to have young children speaking in an adult manner. A
number felt that the ad was exploitative and could encourage
paedophiles. The ITC, in ruling against the complaints, disagreed with
this assessment: ‘The references, employed in a light-hearted manner,
did not constitute adequate grounds for intervention.’
And there the matter might have rested, but for the energetic crusade of
the Labour MP, Tony Banks. Banks announced his intention to table an
amendment to the Broadcasting Bill, currently progressing through
Parliament. He quickly corralled signatures from 23 fellow Labour MPs,
one Conservative and an Ulster Unionist and fired off his disgust with
the campaign in easily digestible soundbites.
Then, when Leigh mischievously suggested that these protests reflected
more on the character of the accusers than on the ads themselves, he
found himself on the end of the sort of attacks that are usually
reserved for prime minister’s question time. ‘It might be that Mr Leigh
does not have much of a conscience,’ Banks said, ‘but if he cannot
accept that there could be dangers as a result of the advertisement, he
is as witless as he is exploitative of children.’
‘Thirty million people will have seen that ad in the four days we ran
it,’ Leigh countered, ‘and the fact is that more MPs have complained
than members of the public, which perhaps suggests something. We
strongly believe that our ad complied not only with the letter of the
ITC codes of practice, but also with the spirit.’
But Leigh is not alone in thinking that the ad is merely an excuse for
parliamentary posturing. ‘It seems to be a legitimate component of
modern politics to draw attention to your own particular interest by
stepping on other public activities - like films and advertisements -
and, to some degree, that’s all that’s gone on here,’ Jerry Judge, Lowe
Howard-Spink’s chief executive, concludes a little ruefully. His own
agency has been co-opted into the debate as a result of its ‘babies’ ad
for Vauxhall, which prompted complaints accusing it of racism as well as
But whatever the motives of the MPs who first raised the issue, it seems
unlikely that it will drift away. Although the National Heritage
Minister, Ian Sproat, stopped short of supporting Banks’ amendment, he
has proved a powerful ally to the campaign. Last week he too rounded on
Safeway, saying that the campaign had ‘disgusted many people’ and
agreeing that he shared the ‘deep unease’ of many of his fellow MPs. His
solution lies in asking the ITC to consider toughening its codes of
practice governing the use of children in advertising.
And it’s not the first time the ITC has become embroiled in the area of
child exploitation. Last year, it administered a slap on the wrist
to the fast-food giant, McDonald’s, after receiving 60 complaints from
viewers about a TV commercial featuring a boy trying to reconcile his
estranged parents at one of its restaurants.
But the concern is that the exploitation argument will be used to
control not just ads that feature children, but also those that have
children as their target market. Certainly, the lobby groups aiming to
bring UK children’s advertising codes into line with some of the more
Draconian regulations in place on the Continent have been enthusiastic
about the interest Banks has helped engender.
‘This kind of publicity helps us get a better hearing and opens out the
whole debate,’ says a spokeswoman for the National Food Alliance, a
lobby group committed to changing food advertising.
If the Government wants to implement change, it need look no further
than Europe where there are countless restrictions. In Greece, Germany
and Spain, for instance, children are banned from appearing in ads for
toys with any violent overtones.
‘Personally, I think that this whole Safeway fuss is a massive non-
story,’ Rupert Howell, a managing partner at Howell Henry Chaldecott
Lury, says. ‘But the fact remains that some people are taking it
seriously and making worrying noises. I do think that there is a
significant danger for the advertising business in any sort of
The offending Safeway ad is no longer on-air. It is very unlikely that
it will be shown again. The politicians already have other issues to
occupy them, other causes to support. But that doesn’t mean that this
won’t be remembered, and being recalled, that it won’t be acted upon.
After all, being seen to protect children’s interests is never going to
be a vote loser.