LIVE ISSUE/PESTER POWER: Should advertising take ’pester power’ seriously?

Where do demands on the industry end and parental ones begin? By John Tylee

Where do demands on the industry end and parental ones begin? By

John Tylee

Child ’pester power’ - where children who have been specifically

targeted with commercial messages harass their parents into buying the

product - is either a monster let loose on parents by the British

advertising industry or a beast so heavily chained down by regulations

that its influence is as potent as the Wizard of Oz.

Whether you believe ’pester power’ to be a genuine issue or a hobbyhorse

for political correctors won’t necessarily depend on whether you work in

the industry or are an interested observer. The question has always

provoked a degree of unease inside agencies.

’I’ve never been able to work on a toy account without feeling pangs of

guilt,’ one leading creative admits. Another says: ’The rate at which

mass marketers encourage children to consume frightens me. I find it


Some agencies prefer to stay out of the controversy completely. Abbott

Mead Vickers BBDO has no toy business. ’We’ve always fought shy of it,’

Jackie Boulter, the agency’s planning director, confirms. ’It’s not

something with which we feel comfortable.’

Mr Justice Bell, summing up at the end of the 313-day High Court libel

action brought by McDonald’s, made it clear he was uneasy, accusing the

fast food chain of exploiting children through its advertising

(Campaign, last week).

That McDonald’s should have been singled out for criticism has caused

dismay in the industry, particularly as the European tide seems to be

running in favour of advertisers.

Last week, Sweden, which outlaws TV advertising to children under 12,

had moves to block such commercials beamed from outside its borders

declared illegal by the European Court.

Moreover, McDonald’s hardly qualifies as a serial offender. It once fell

foul of the Advertising Standards Authority when a franchise in Northern

Ireland addressed a mailshot to a child, while the Independent

Television Commission expressed disquiet two years ago about a Leo

Burnett ad in which a boy engineers a meeting between his estranged

parents in a McDonald’s restaurant.

’This has to be an industry-wide debate on how you should advertise

responsibly,’ a senior McDonald’s executive says. ’We argue that the

organisation is a responsible advertiser that meets all legal

requirements and follows its own code of practice.’

Certainly, the judge’s observations failed to impress senior industry

figures. ’They were remarkably inappropriate and injudicious and have

nothing to do with the judgment,’ Lionel Stanbrook, the Advertising

Association’s deputy director-general, complains.

Nevertheless, the ’McLibel’ case has put ’pester power’ firmly back on

the agenda and forced the industry to re-examine its collective


A welcome development, some believe.

Meanwhile, the National Food Alliance, the pressure group campaigning

for heavier restrictions on the advertising of sweets and snack foods to

children, will be urging Chris Smith, the National Heritage Secretary,

to call on the ITC to review its codes.

The problem is determining what makes an ad exploitative of


ITC and ASA regulations forbid any advertising that exhorts children to

ask their parents to buy a product for them.

Indeed, one of British advertising’s most memorable copylines - ’Don’t

forget the fruit gums, mum’ - would not be allowed under current


Nor do they permit advertising that makes children feel inferior if they

don’t have the product.

Sue Dibb, the NFA’s project officer, claims that while advertisers may

be following the letter of the codes, they are not observing their


Commercials can often be so persuasive that the message to children gets

through, she says.

Tightening the codes, however, would force the ITC into making highly

subjective judgments. ’It would be difficult for the ITC but that’s what

it’s there for,’ Dibb argues. ’We feel advertisers are given the benefit

of the doubt unless they blatantly flout the rules. We’d like to see the

balance swinging in favour of consumers.’

The question is where advertisers’ responsibilities end and those of

parents begin.

’If parents have become so wimpish that they can’t stand up to their

children and are putting the blame on advertising, that’s a sorry state

of affairs,’ John Hooper, director-general of the Incorporated Society

of British Advertisers, remarks. ’I believe parents are tougher than

that. Are we saying that if there were no advertising pestering would


The major problem is deciding where the line should be drawn. As Winston

Fletcher, the former Advertising Association chairman, puts it: ’Any ad

for a toy and many ads for food products appeal to children without

encouraging them to pester parents. The only way out is to ban ads for

any product a child might like and that’s manifest rubbish.’

Boulter even suggests that ’pester power’ can have an upside. Better,

she says, that children will pester for a nutritious breakfast cereal

they have seen advertised on TV than no cereal at all.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, the big fear among advertisers and their

agencies is that Mr Justice Bell has just handed their detractors a

powerful new weapon. ’It’s a serious issue as advertising regulations

threaten to tighten across the world,’ Dan O’Donoghue, the Publicis

planning chief, warns. ’We have to defend in depth.’


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