Television Review

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The Independent Culture
LET'S START with the good news: and that is that advertisers don't actually sidle up to six-year-olds in the playground and say "Here's a fiver - nag your mum". The bad news is that this is about the only thing they don't do.

Getting Older Younger (BBC2) was a chilling documentary about the way that advertisers are targeting children. Market researchers, eager to harness the "pester power" that forces parents to give in to their children's whims, go into playschools to assess the brand-awareness of pre-literate toddlers. They shut small boys up in darkened rooms and show them slides of supermarket shelves, noting down which products are recognised. "If you choose the wrong logo," a researcher explained, "the packaging doesn't stand out from the shelf, and when you go down a shopping aisle with a screaming child on the trolley, they don't turn their head and say `Mummy, I want this particular product'." He didn't seem to feel that this presented any ethical problems.

The programme asked advertising and marketing people how they felt about the moral dimension of targeting children. One adman, Peter Mead of Abbot Mead Vickers, said he wouldn't ever advertise toys. Stephen Colegrave of Saatchi and Saatchi spoke of the importance to children of having the right gear, and went on to argue that advertising has benefited children - helping them to get things they wanted instead of things their parents wanted to give them. He evidently felt that reinforcing peer-group pressures and exacerbating family conflicts was a small price to pay.

In fact, probably the only thing that stops advertisers offering children a fiver to nag is the knowledge that most of them would laugh contemptuously and demand a tenner, plus 50 Benson & Hedges and a pair of Air Nikes. British children, according to the marketing people, are far more grown- up than those elsewhere: the modern child watches soap operas, enjoys Budweiser adverts and plays computer games like Kingpin (the film showed a bit of this one: you take the part of a vengeful street hood who uses an iron bar to beat to death a prostitute and her pimp). As far as advertising people are concerned, this means that children represent an even more lucrative market. Blair Witch, Schmair Witch: this scared the pants off me.

Another disturbing picture of childhood emerged in Child of the Death Camps: Truth and Lies (BBC1). This examined the history of Binjamin Wilko- mirski, author of the book Fragments, which tells of a childhood in Nazi concentration camps - starving babies eating their own frozen fingers, rats seemingly born from the wombs of dead women. It is a remarkable book but, as Christopher Olgiati's film established, almost certainly untrue: Wilkomirski was born in Switzerland, and brought up as the adoptive son of a wealthy, indulgent couple. He constructed this mythical, terrible past to - well, what? To draw attention to himself? To account for his unhappiness? The film seemed unsure of its moral ground, making up for uncertainty with lashings of dramatic music and elaborate montages of black-and-white images. All the same, it was fascinating and troubling.