A Government proposal for a total ban on advertising aimed at children would fail to end the cycle of "compulsive consumerism" in which parents are trapped, the Government's adviser on young people has warned.
A prohibition on advertising targeted at under-16s was one of the proposals mooted in a leaked document drawn up by a Downing Street aide, containing policies designed to woo women voters.
A ban on the £100m industry targeting British children through television, radio, billboards and online advertising would put commercial children's channels out of business and hit food, electronics and entertainment giants.
But Reg Bailey, chief executive of the Mothers' Union, who published a report for the Government into the commercialisation and sexualisation of young children, said insidious marketing via the internet would make an advertising ban ineffective.
The Downing Street leak coincided with the publication of a Unicef report warning that materialism had come to dominate family life in the UK as parents "pointlessly" amass goods for their children to compensate for long working hours.
Unicef suggested the obsession with consumer goods was an underlying cause of last month's riots and looting. Parents trap their children in a cycle of "compulsive consumerism" by showering them with toys and designer labels instead of spending time with them. Children were much happier in Spain and Sweden where the obsession with consumerism was far less embedded and family time prioritised.
The report called on the Government to emulate Sweden, which introduced a ban on television advertising aimed at children under the age of 12, in 1991. However, Mr Bailey said: "Parents told me they could cope with conventional advertising and didn't want a ban. It's the online behaviour, which bypasses parental influence, that they didn't understand. It's that pressure which comes from advertising around web search engines."
Mr Bailey, who agreed with the Unicef analysis, said: "Parents do lack confidence in their parenting skills and they give their children goods and toys as a substitute for giving them their time. Parents are loath to allow their child to be singled out for bullying because they haven't got the right brands or the latest iPad."
Children's minister Sarah Teather said she "shared Unicef's concerns about the rise of consumerism" and was working to implement Mr Bailey's recommendations, including restricting outdoor adverts containing sexualised imagery where children can see them. Ofcom introduced a ban on junk food advertising on programmes aimed at children under 16 in 2007. The regulators said the restrictions had reduced children's overall exposure to such adverts by 37 per cent.
Introducing the Swedish ban would prohibit advertising before, during and after programmes aimed at the under-12s. But Ofcom said it had no plans to extend the ban because research showed "television has a relatively modest impact on children's food preferences". The Government is looking at ways to strengthen child protection on the internet but is seeking co-operation with Google, You Tube and other major web players before threatening legislation. Marketing expert Dr Agnes Nairn, who wrote the Unicef report, said: "While children would prefer time with their parents to heaps of consumer goods, (their) parents seem under tremendous pressure to purchase a surfeit of material goods for their children. This compulsive consumption was almost completely absent in both Spain and Sweden."
Advertising rules around the world
Rules about advertising to children vary wildly from nation to nation. Examples include the following:
Junk food ads banned in shows aimed at children aged four to 15 and ban on use of cartoon characters and celebrities in high-fat food ads aimed at primary-school children. Ofcom said 2007 restrictions had reduced children's exposure to junk food advertising by 37 per cent.
Ban on commercials aimed at children under 12 when children are likely to be watching. Children's voice-overs and product placement banned. Restrictions on in-store promotions aimed at children.
Advertising aired during programming aimed at under-12s limited to 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays. Tighter junk food restrictions under consideration.
Ban on advertising for toys between 7am and 10pm and total ban on advertising for war toys.
Ban on advertising making a "direct offer" to children. No linkage allowed to children's programmes.
Ban on ads 10 minutes before and after programmes intended for children.
Ads banned during programmes for pre-school children. Advertisers banned from using popular characters and celebrities to market products.
Top 20 youth brands
The Unicef report into the health and wellbeing of young people claimed British parents are trapping their children in a cycle of 'compulsive consumerism', buying them gifts in lieu of spending time with them. On the same day, a leaked No 10 report suggested banning advertising to the under-16s.
The most popular brands in this sector are:
1. Walkers crisps
2. The Simpsons
5. Nintendo Wii
9. Nintendo DS
10. Wii Sports
12. Cadbury's Dairy Milk
13. Apple iPhone
15. Kellogg's Coco Pops
16. Kit Kat
17. Jaffa Cakes