A few weeks ago on Radio 4’s Today programme, advertising to
children was defended on the grounds that we shouldn’t worry too much
because the two biggest selling toys last Christmas, the Furby and the
yo-yo, weren’t even advertised. Let’s hope no clients were
A further justification was that children ought to be exposed to
advertising so they get used to it early since they’re going to be
exposed to it in later life anyway. That argument portrays advertising
as the sort of activity against which society needs some sort of
training and perhaps even immunisation.
It was also said that children have a healthy scepticism to
Put these arguments alongside the well-publicised pro-tobacco
advertising defence that it doesn’t increase consumption, only
encourages brand switching, and we have an industry publicly defending
itself on the grounds that because everybody knows it’s questionable,
that’s OK, and that it doesn’t really work that well anyway.
How can the advertising industry possibly defend itself on the grounds
that its product is not persuasive? What do all those people in agencies
do all day long then? On the contrary, why isn’t it joyfully claimed
that that is precisely what it is supposed to do, doing it as it does in
a highly regulated fashion - openly, honestly and truthfully?
What’s wrong with freedom of information and the mechanisms of
capitalism as a defence; if it’s legal to sell it, it is not only
acceptable, but essential that we advertise it. You may not like the
issue or the product, but don’t blame the advertising industry for
How can you have a free market economy if the public doesn’t know what
is in the market? How can you have a price war, from which customers
benefit hugely, if no-one knows it’s going on? What sort of economy
encourages the production of goods and then denies the producer the
right to tell anyone about those things being produced?
As for pester power, it was argued that it isn’t advertising that
creates it, it’s peer group pressure in the playground - an argument
that still leaves unanswered the belief that it is advertising that
gives the peer group its impetus to create pressure anyway. Surely the
proper defence is that to believe that children never demanded anything
from their parents until the advent of television advertising is
preposterous. Are we supposed to believe that kids never pressed their
noses against toy shop windows before 1955?
Anyway, is this really the justification for denying children the right
to be told that, for example, the latest Disney film is on at the cinema
round the corner? As it happens, the only commercial I can recall that
deliberately encouraged pester power is one that seems to be remembered
fondly by all who saw it - ’Don’t forget the Fruit Gums, Mum’.
What’s wrong with a bit of confident, robust advocacy - not just on the
children’s advertising issue but on all advertising issues?