A commercial break for parents

Sweden wants children's TV advertising banned across the EC.
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ANY PARENT knows the mind-numbing pressure of pester power - the bleating, tortuous whine of a child seduced by a TV advert for a breakfast cereal/toy/chocolate bar. Any parent, that is, outside Norway and Sweden, where TV ads directed at children under 12 are banned.

The Swedes now want to liberate all Europe's pestered parents by using their EU presidency in 2001 to press for much stricter rules for advertising children's products. They say that studies show that children under 12 do not fully comprehend the effect of advertising, cannot assess products advertised and do not properly value money.

Children under six are even more vulnerable, according to research; they often cannot distinguish between programmes, news and adverts. They simply react to the attractiveness of the slogans, pictures and colours. This, the Swedes say, makes the question of targeting children an ethical and moral issue which raises fundamental question of fairness.

Sweden has protected its own children by framing restrictions in two parts. There is an absolute ban on all adverts on terrestrial channels immediately before, after and during children's programming. There is also an all-day ban on any advertisements deemed to be aimed specifically at under-12s.

This leaves room for interpretation, but most advertisers play safe. McDonald's, the world's biggest advertiser to children, is obliged to present itself as a family restaurant in Sweden.

The beguiling fantasy cartoon adverts that so influence children in London fall outside the law in Stockholm, so the current humorous Swedish Macadverts portray a mum and dad meeting at the Macrestaurant after work.

Other products - such as Sindy Doll - are advertised instead on the Swedish language satellite channel beamed from the UK by Swedish entrepreneurs. The Swedes would like to impose their laws on these London broadcasts, and have been involved in a long legal battle with companies that say that restricting free speech in advertising is a denial of commercial rights. Sweden's Trade Court will rule on the matter tomorrow at the same time as the United Nations Development Programme publishes its annual report, which praises Sweden and Norway for their leadership in protecting young children from consumerism.

Sweden's under-secretary for culture, Ann-Christin Nykvist, told BBC Radio's Today programme that the Swedes wanted to spread their restrictions across Europe partly to avoid satellite broadcasters dodging their laws but also because they believe the measure would be popular with parents in other countries. "TV adverts make children big consumers at an early age, and we should protect children who are vulnerable to this. We are traditionally a country with liberal laws on censorship - but we think on this issue there needs to be strict laws."

Research suggests that nearly 90 per cent of Swedish advertising professionals back the restrictions. However, the Advertisers Association, an international lobby group, hopes to overcome this restrictive coalition with the help of Brussels. They say the Swedish laws are anti-competitive because, by denying children the opportunity to see TV ads, they favour products already in the market.

Bo Johansson, the association's director, says: "The kids need to know about the choice that exists on the market. The ban is not good in a modern free society."

The European Commission is considering the arguments as part of the review of the television directive. It might be helped by surveying consumer opinion polls in countries outside Scandinavia to see how many parents would welcome relief from pester power.

Roger Harrabin reports for Radio 4's `Today' programme