Ads that target kids may soon be a crime

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Using "pester power" to sell toys and junk food may soon become a criminal offence under proposals due to be released by the Department of Trade and Industry in the next few days.

A consultation paper on how to implement the European Commission directive on Unfair Commercial Practices is expected to say that trading standards officers can bring criminal charges against companies that aggressively market to children.

What defines "aggressive" is going to be an important flashpoint, as food companies in particular have come under fire for using cartoon characters and celebrities to push their wares. Advertisers fear that the DTI incorporation of the EU directive into law could kill off many promotions for the likes of Walkers Crisps or McDonald's.

Ian Twinn, of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, accused the DTI of "gold-plating" the EU rules. "The UK was originally against including marketing to children in the area of misleading and aggressive marketing. Yet, with the EU only asking for civil penalties, we are considering criminal sanctions."

The Government has become increasingly worried about the use of "pester power" by advertisers. Some politicians want the UK to follow the Swedish model, where TV advertising aimed at children is banned.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport preferred a voluntary advertisers' code. Some parent groups believe that this code is not affecting advertisers' behaviour.