Toying with television

When Norway banned TV advertising to children under 12, the toy makers fought back. Roger Trapp reports

Many parents might disagree, but research cited by the Toy Manufacturers of Europe (TME) claims television advertising to children is an essentially "harmless activity".

For this reason it was solidly behind Lego and Mattel when they went to court against the Norwegian government's ban on TV advertising to children below the age of 12. In the event, the European Free Trade Association (Efta) Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion that the ban did not apply to advertisements on satellite television beamed into the country from Britain. As a result, the Norwegian Consumer Office has abandoned its case in the country's "market court" against the two toy makers.

At the centre of this issue is the European Union's Television Without Frontiers directive, which is up for revision. Although Norway is not part of the union, it is bound by EU legislation as a result of its signature to the EEA Treaty, under which it effectively accepts the "acquis communautaire". But the Efta court's finding is unlikely to bring about the end of the matter. Indeed, for observers of the European policy-making processes, it may yield a few lessons in how the rules that - to the distaste of the Euro-sceptics - increasingly rule our lives are arrived at.

For a start, the TME - heartened by the finding in favour of satellite programmes - is pressing for the overturning of Norway's ban on children's advertisements in programmes produced within the country. The organisation was founded in 1990 to lobby EU institutions on behalf of the union's toy manufacturers and now claims to represent 80 per cent of them. It is also lobbying institutions and the European Parliament to advance its case that, subject to general rules on taste and misleading claims, advertising of toys does no wrong.

Sweden operates a similar ban to Norway and the TME fears its representatives might win extra support, even from MEPs from countries such as Britain. "It is an emotive subject," says a spokesman, adding that it is relatively easy for politicians to win popularity at home by backing such restrictions. However, these people might - in the course of the usual political "horse trading" - sacrifice theirbacking for this kind of measure if convinced that a different interest would win greater support; for example, France's keenness on programme quotas.

The TME is attempting to portray this battle as a classic fight for freedom of trade in the face of - albeit well-intentioned - prejudice. It is, of course, much more basic than that: it is about sales of toys.

As the organisation's spokesman explains, the Television Without Frontiers directive is designed to promote European programming. This is a challenge because it is far easier and cheaper to import tried and tested shows from the United States.

Against such a background, tightening the rules on advertisements to children, or even banning them, would amount to "shooting ourselves in the foot, because you can't expect broadcasters to invest if revenue is restricted", says the spokesman.

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