Close-Up: Live Issue - Is children's advertising too sexual?

The Tory leader has attacked the ad industry as well as clothing retailers on the issue.

David Cameron's attack on the "harmful and creepy" promotion of sexually provocative clothes to young children received a mixed reaction from Britain's ad industry.

Not surprising, perhaps, given that the collective need for agencies to lock in the next generation of consumers is tempered by the fact that ad people are parents too.

Which of them would not recoil at padded bras and thongs aimed at nine-year-olds or T-shirts for little girls bearing the slogan "So many boys, so little time"?

Nevertheless, even those within the industry despair of turning back the tide. "My daughter is 11 going on 21 and would dress like a crack whore if I didn't stop her," a leading UK creative director sighs. "But we aren't the instigators. The rules don't allow us to be."

Although the Tory leader was directing his fire primarily at high-street retailers, he made it clear that agencies and their clients were equally culpable when it came to sexualising children and robbing them of their innocence.

Whether or not Cameron is tilting at windmills is a moot point. Bhs, one of his targets, withdrew its Little Miss Naughty range of padded bras and knickers for pre-teen girls three years ago.

"Cameron is shrewd. What he says will appeal to middle-class parents who are trying to stop their kids looking like Little Britain stereotypes," Gerry Moira, the executive creative director of Euro RSCG, says.

However, in the past five years, the Advertising Standards Authority has upheld complaints against just three advertisements accused of sexualising children.

One, for Armani Junior, featured a topless, androgynous child, while another, by Accurist, promoted jewellery using an image of a heavily made-up child taking part in a beauty pageant. The third, for Les Miserables, carried an illustration of a small girl wearing a backless dress, stockings and suspenders.

The consensus among agencies is that while the business has to understand what is happening, it should not have to shoulder the blame for forcing children to grow up too quickly when the process is being accelerated by a host of contributory factors.

The often explicit nature of the editorial in some of the magazines read by pre-teens is seen as part of the problem, as is the prevalence of X-rated lyrics in popular music.

"I would like the question of the sexualisation of children to be put squarely to the music industry," Kate Robertson, the Euro RSCG UK group chairman, who has a 14-year-old daughter, says.

"The other problem is the management of internet content," she adds.

"It can't be controlled, and certainly not by our industry. And yet look at how iPod's advertising works on people aged from eight to 80. The excuse that you have to run sexy advertising to children to achieve sales is rubbish."

Nicola Mendelsohn, the deputy chairman of Grey London and a mother of four, suggests the issue is a broad one that extends well beyond the activities of the ad industry and clothing retailers.

"There's no doubt that children are growing up faster and being exposed to all kinds of extra pressures much sooner," she says.

"That presents a particular dilemma for parents who don't want to see their small daughters in split skirts. But neither do they want to see them ridiculed by their friends for not being fashionable."

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REGULATOR - Andrew Brown, chairman, Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice

"This seems to be a storm in a teacup. Very little of this kind of advertising takes place. It certainly rarely registers on the regulatory radar. Of course, the issue of the sexualisation of children is an important one, but I think the problem is theoretical rather than practical.

"Most advertisers tend to stay away from this area. I think greater areas of concern are the explicit lyrics of a lot of rap music.

"Children are growing up more quickly than ever before, so it is inevitable that there will be lots of fashion aimed at pre-teens. But I doubt whether much of the marketing of it extends beyond in-store promotion."

CREATIVE - Malcolm Poynton, executive creative director, Ogilvy & Mather

"If there is an issue, it is one that goes well beyond advertising. I can't even think of an ad that oversteps the mark. Indeed, it is in everybody's interest to unite against things like that.

"Of course, children are growing up faster. But that isn't because of advertising. What about the internet and mobile phones? I would suggest that computer games manufacturers are far more culpable than we are.

"Who wouldn't agree that the sexualisation of children is creepy, but I think it is more likely to occur in the high-fashion area. Cameron is a politician searching for an issue and a headline."

CHARITY CHIEF - Michele Elliot, director, Kidscape

"Some of the advertising that sexualised children in the past has been horrendous, but advertisers seem to have learned their lesson. There are certainly fewer contentious ads now. I can only assume that Cameron has begun to think about the problem because he has children of his own.

"Of course, manufacturers must be responsible about the clothing they promote to children. The trouble is, there will always be some idiot parent who is stupid enough to buy a thong for their eight-year-old daughter.

"Store buyers should not be allowed to put this stuff on their shelves without realising the implications."

PLANNER - David Bain, planning partner, Beattie McGuinness Bungay

"Cameron is right in highlighting parents' concerns about how abbreviated childhood has become. But advertising agencies are not responsible for cultural trends. If we were, we'd all be multibillionaires.

"We spend our time trying to understand cultures rather than create them. Thank goodness we can't, when we find some of those cultures so pernicious.

"I think that what's happening is more about the infantilisation of adults. We don't want our children to be so grown-up, while we ourselves dress ever younger. Then we wonder why children want to reach out for their adult selves and why man/boy figures are their role models."