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Advertisers help parents beat commercials

THE ADVERTISING industry issued practical advice yesterday to help parents to cope with the annual outbreak of "pester power" from their children in the run-up to Christmas.

But just as the Advertising Association, which represents advertisers and agencies, was urging parents to encourage family television viewing and involve children in buying decisions, many in the marketing business denied such a thing as "pester power" existed or, if it did, that they were at all responsible for it.

Conscious of the glut of advertisements promoting any number of toys and computer games, the association has issued a booklet outlining ways in which parents can fend off the "I want" tendency rife among children at this time of year. It advises parents, for example, not to feel guilty about not buying something that is beyond their means. It urgescompromise where feasible, but otherwise to stand firm.

The self-help guide is a further attempt by the association to fend off the threat of tighter controls on advertising to children. In Sweden and Norway, ads aimed at under-12s are banned. The Swedes are apparently keen to use their EU presidency in 2001 to ensure that stricter rules are applied across Europe.

While such a move would be welcomed by Friends of the Earth, which is arguing for a pre-9pm watershed ban on children's advertising as part of its campaign to stem consumerism, it would be opposed vigorously by the advertising industry.

Children's advertising in Britain is controlled by Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre guidelines, which stipulate ads "must not encourage children to pester or make a nuisance of themselves to other people. Phrases such as `ask mummy to buy' are unacceptable". And broadly speaking, the controls appear to work. The Independent Television Commission, which polices commercial television, receives "a handful" of complaints about advertisements that allegedly exploit children's desires. None of them has been upheld.

Agencies say that although their work is aimed at stimulating demand for products, they are just one of several factors at work. "`Pester power' is a misused catchphrase bandied about by consumer groups who have not given it much thought," says Jane Mathews, managing partner of J Walter Thompson, whoseportfolio includes Smarties, Dairylea and Frosties. "Peer pressure and what they see and feel around them is far more important. What their parents say, their older brother or sister say, is a much greater influence.

"[Pester power] also dodges the issue that parents can just say `no'. It's part of a bigger society thing where people do not want to accept responsibility. They prefer to blame someone else, in this case advertising."

Martin Phelps, business director of Ogilvy & Mather, which handles Fisher Price, Barbie and Hot Wheels, admits that television images do condition young minds, but says programmes are far more significant than the commercials in between. "You only have to look at Teletubbies last year - no advertising, but massive demand," says Mr Phelps. "It's all about what their peers in the playground are saying. Word of mouth works brilliantly. Yo-yos weren't advertised."

Part of the fear that underpins the legislation in Sweden is research that suggests children under 12 do not fully understand the effect of adver-tising and cannot assess products. However, recent work by Dr Brian Young, a psychologist at the University of Exeter, shows young children are far more sophisticated than previously thought. According to Dr Young, by the age of five, 50 per cent of children know what an advertisement is attempting to do. By the age of eight, that figure rises to 80 per cent.

What no one disputes is that children are playing a more important role in a family's purchasing decisions, but this, say agencies, is because parents now tend to consult their offspring.

Research by the Kid Connection, Saatchi & Saatchi's specialist unit, estimates children have an influence in pounds 31bn of adult spending.

The chief difference at Christmas is that children do not need an invitation to say what they want.

"But what's the problem with that?" says Mr Phelps. "They are going to buy toys anyway so there is nothing wrong in a kid letting them know which one they want."

Three Messages Designed to Make Your Children Pester You

Lego: Young lad creates wonders with his Lego set, becomes superstar and is rewarded with ticker tape parade. However, we never see the fruits of his work as "it's in the box". The idea is to stimulate child's imagination and creativity, wholesome attributes that any right-thinking parent would be happy to cultivate.

Scalextric: Lad becomes dad, picks up son and regales him with the joys of Scalextric while waltzing around the maternity ward. Except he's holding the wrong baby. The ad recognises that the Playstation and replica kits are the staple of most homes and that the best hope for introducing Scalextric to a new generation is through nostalgia.

Sunny Delight: Children's soft drink launch of the year, as much based on the effectiveness of the whole marketing mix (in-store displays, money-off coupons) as the advertising. Still enjoyed high-profile TV promotion, in which boys open the fridge and find, to their joy, Sunny Delight. The message is aimed squarely at mother.