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CHILDREN AND ADVERTISING
the european dimension

Views concerning the ethics of advertising aimed at children diverge widely in Europe. In Sweden it is considered unacceptable and is banned for children under 12 with the approval of the majority of the population. In France advertisements are seen as part of preparing children for future life in a consumer society.

There seems to be agreement that certain regulations at least are necessary - as the existence of restrictions in all European countries shows. However, the degree to which advertisement to children is regulated again varies widely from country to country.

see also
teaching and study resource
early years
education for peace

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In the UK, restrictions exist on ads that 'might result in harm to children physically, mentally or morally' and on ads employing methods that 'take advantage of the natural credulity and sense of loyalty of children'. Nor may advertisements 'exhort children to purchase or to ask their parents or others to make enquiries or purchases'. There are rules on food advertising, health, hygiene, safety and decency and there are restrictions on transmission time (for alcohol, medicines and slimming products) [Independent Television Commission, Rules on Advertisements to Children, 1997]. Greece has a ban on advertisements for children's toys between 7 am and 10 pm and a total ban on advertisement for war toys.

Are the relatively unspecific rules in the UK enough and does legislation in Greece go too far? Most European consumer organisations call for strong limitations of commercial activity directed at children. Out of the 15 EU countries, only 4 (France, Ireland, the Netherlands and the UK) do not consider advertising aimed at children as harmful, and Spain alone considers a ban on advertisement undemoratic. The present move to harmonise legislation in this area on a EU-wide basis raises a number of issues concerning how far legislation should go.

The development of critical sense
One argument in favour of little regulation is the educative aspect of exposing children to advertisement.

Children's reactions to advertisement can be very different from grown-ups. If adults see a product advertised and don't find it when they go shopping they forget about it. As children develop the ability to recognise and understand ads and their purpose they start making demands. If these demands are not fulfilled they might start screaming or throwing themselves to the floor. It is difficult to explain to young children the reasons why they cannot have everything which - according to advertising - is 'for them'.

Research by advertising agencies has confirmed that children's personal preferences can be targeted and changed by TV advertising. Family dynamics are thus influenced by advertisements that create demands and provide children with arguments why they should want a particular thing; this can make life extremely difficult for parents who for financial or moral reasons refuse to comply.

Swedish public opinion considers advertising to children 'not fair play'. Besides the ban on advertising to children under 12, the law prohibits displays of sweets in shops within reach of little children and stipulates that attention must be paid to problems that could arise when parents queue up.

Are Swedish children thus cheated out of their chance to develop critical sense in relation to advertising? And will they be less able, when they grow up, to deal with the disappointment of not possessing everything they see advertised?

It would seem to be fairer and more sensible to start educating children about the commercial intentions of companies at an age when they can rationalise and are no longer predominantly motivated by emotions. Expecting children to learn about advertisements before that age would seem to be rather futile as well as creating difficulties for the child and the family.

The effects of advertising
There is another aspect to the 'educational dimension'-argument which raises questions. For, even once children have 'developed critical sense' in relation to advertisements, they are still being subliminally influenced by them. If adults, who have had years of practice in seeing through and being able to deal with ads, could not be swayed in their decisions to choose or buy products then no company would spend millions on advertising.

Research has confirmed the influence of the media upon the close conformity between children's tastes and perceived needs and the content of the programmes they watch. Teachers say they know what has been on TV the night before by the games the children play the next day.

Research carried out by the Independent Television Commission has found that the effectiveness of advertising increases when the ads are shown in between or around programmes aimed at children, or when children perceive an advertisement to be made 'for them' as, for example, with toys or breakfast cereals.

If the subliminal effects of advertisement were not officially perceived as a danger, attempts would not be made to promote a healthier diet in England by prohibiting ads which 'encourage or condone excessive consumption of any food, ..depict situations where it could reasonably be assumed that teeth are unlikely to be cleaned overnight, ...or encourage children to consume food or drink especially sweet sticky foods near bedtime' (ITC rules on food advertising to children, 1995).

What would be the sense of prohibiting advertisements in which children climb up to shelves, are shown near an open fire without a fireguard or play 'irresponsibly' near water (ITC rules) if it was thought that they had no influence?

An important point in this connection is the fact that in 9 out of the 15 EU countries enforcement of the rules on advertising to children is felt to be inadequate ['Children and Advertising', Bureau Europeen des Unions de Consommateurs, 1997]. In the UK, for example, criticism has been levelled at the ITC for not carrying out systematic monitoring and for ineffective sanctions - there are no fines or obligations for corrective advertisement.

Even where enforcement is considered to be effective, problems arise with TV stations transmitting from other countries which are not legally subject to the regulations of the receiving county.

Thus we have a situation where the need for regulation and the danger of the imitative aspect of advertising to children is generally acknowledged, but where regulations are rarely fully enforced.

Furthermore, children are, on the one hand, deemed to need protection from bad examples while on the other hand, they are allowed to be exposed to the commercial intentions of companies who use the latest research to target and psychologically influence children to their own commercial gain.

This influence, additionally, goes quite a lot further than just trying to persuade children that they want or need certain products.
Education in consumerism

Advertisements today are not so much about the products but rather about the character of the consumers and how they should feel when they use or possess the advertised product. Messages to children are all about the happiness, social status or success which accompany the possession or consumption of a certain toy or type of food.

Advertisement research found that the media can isolate and shape children's preferences for different toys, TV characters, life styles, subcultures, etc. at different ages. Advertising proved to be particularly effective if these preferences were then fed back to them in the ads. A double reinforcement of values takes place, where children's preferences are formed by the media and presented to them again in advertising. Children who are exposed to a lot of advertising are thus educated about a particular lifestyle: they are educated about living in a consumer society. They learn certain attitudes - the importance of money, what products are needed, how they are to be used and how products are supposed to make them feel.

Allowing business interests and economic criteria to determine what children are exposed to when watching ads will undoubtedly have some effect on their future outlook on society.
The freedom of expression

In Spain a ban on advertisement is considered undemocratic.

Would the prohibition on tobacco advertisements be seen as equally undemocratic since tobacco companies are legally prevented from using TV advertisements to convince people that damaging and perhaps fatally damaging their health is a cool thing to do?

Advertisement does not potentially kill children, but the question remains what particular freedom would be lost, and what disadvantage incurred, if children were not exposed from an early age to TV advertisements directed at them for the commercial gain of companies.

After all, the companies certainly do not have the children's moral or social well-being in mind; they are solely concerned about profits.

CHILDREN IN WAR
child soldiers
children in war
effects of war

MEDIA
Decoding the image -
Media and violence survey
Children and advertising
Advertising to children - the european view
Kid's TV - preventing violence
Petition

DOCUMENTS
The politics of war play -
Machel Report

Rights of the Child
About the Convention
Preamble
Part One (articles 1- 41)
Part Two (Articles 42 - 45)
Part Three (Articles 46-54)
Draft Optional Protocoll

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