EDITORIAL: Children's ads row needs to be ended

The issue of advertising to Europe's children has turned into a grim war of attrition with no sign of the stalemate being broken or common ground being found.

The gulf was encapsulated at last week's annual conference of the European Association of Communication Agencies where the usual grenades were tossed into the enemy camp. Ads aren't producing overweight children, that's the fault of changing lifestyles, it was claimed. As for "pester power", it's up to parents to show some backbone and simply say no, the argument runs.

In Sweden, which bans TV advertising to the under-12s and which has become a symbol of the crusade, the determination to hold the high moral ground seems to be eclipsing rational debate. Little matter that the ban is undermined by the ads beamed in from beyond its borders. It's the principal that counts. This clash between conscience and commercialism will get wider and deeper. The Swedes, having been thwarted in their attempts to extend their domestic ban across Europe, will almost certainly adopt stealth tactics by persuading the emerging markets of eastern Europe to follow their lead.

And don't expect the European Commission to intervene. It claims to be more concerned about ads which mislead children rather than a blanket ban and already has its work cut out trying to impose uniformity on so many disparate cultures. And its failure to act against the ban on toy ads in Greece suggests the Swedes will be able to hold out against its harmonisation policy with impunity.

So what's to be done to end the deadlock? A good start would be some genuinely independent research whose credibility all parties would accept.

Marie Salmark, the former secretary-general of the Swedish Consumers Association, made a valid point and touched a raw nerve when she suggested that research results inevitably depended on who asked the questions.

At present, much of the existing research into children and advertising is regarded - rightly or wrongly - as flawed and tainted. It is equally wrong for the Swedes to build their case on some long-discredited research as it is for the ad industry to continually wheel out its tame academic, the economic psychologist Dr Brian Young, to tell it what it enjoys hearing.

The ad industry did itself no favours defending the indefensibility of tobacco advertising and will have to fight doubly hard to win the case for advertising to children. If the Swedes have failed to make the case that TV advertising harms small children, Europe's ad industry has yet to prove to enough people's satisfaction that it doesn't.