Short of a flutter on Manchester United winning the championship
and Watford dropping through the Premier League’s trapdoor, no bet looks
safer than the Swedish government’s failure to secure a Europe-wide ban
on TV advertising to children.
The Swedes’ idealism seems to have foundered on the rocks of European
Union bureaucracy. The wheels of EU institutions grind slowly and a
snowball in hell was always likely to fare better than Sweden’s bid to
win universal support for a ban during its EU presidency next year.
With little preparatory work having been done among EU officials and
with even the most uncontroversial measures taking almost two years to
be agreed, the Swedes have bowed to pragmatism. Getting a ban
incorporated into a revised Television Without Frontiers directive in
2003 is now their declared aim.
All of which makes you wonder whether this was the Swedes’ true
intention all along. Crank up the publicity machine, create lots of good
headlines about protecting the young and vulnerable, and get public
opinion running your way when the first chance emerges of winning
agreement for a ban.
Certainly, there’s little likelihood of a Swedish-inspired prohibition
in the near future. And, given the lack of support for one among the
majority of EU countries, the threat may have disappeared for good.
So what has everybody been getting so worked up about? Have Europe’s ad
industry lobbyists merely been crying wolf about Swedish intentions to
justify their existence while safe in the knowledge that no proposed ban
could survive an EU machine constantly at the mercy of vested
Not exactly. While Stockholm’s mission to extend its national ban across
Europe looks doomed to short-term failure, the initiative may become a
beacon for all kinds of groups, both informal and official, seeking to
bring advertisers to heel.
The powerful emotions these issues generate and the need for new
government agencies to demonstrate their virility could result in all
sorts of restrictions appearing from left field. Witness the recently
established Food Safety Agency in France whose first action was the
outrageous decision to maintain a ban on British beef in defiance of the
In the UK, the Government has reassured the industry that a ban on TV
advertising to children forms no part of its legislative programme. But
don’t sigh with relief yet.
The new Food Standards Agency may decide it needs to tackle advertising
as part of its crusade to improve diet and nutrition among children. So
could a European Food Safety Agency, which the European Commission has
pledged to establish.
Quite right too, you may think. But using advertising as a tool for
social engineering sets a worrying precedent. After toys and sweets,
Caroline Marshall is away on maternity leave.