CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/CHILDREN IN ADS’; Are MPs using ‘Harry and Molly’ to score points?

Richard Cook investigates the political shenanigans prompted by Safeway’s ad

Richard Cook investigates the political shenanigans prompted by

Safeway’s ad

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

child exploitation.

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

interventionist policy.’

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.

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