Why MPs worry about Harry and Molly

Using children in adverts makes money for supermarkets, says Graham Ball. But does it pander to paedophiles?
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The Independent Online
The two tousled toddlers posing happily here represent a lot more than just a simple study in childhood innocence. For a growing number of marketing executives fighting the increasingly desperate battle for supermarket dominance, they amount to nothing less than a highly effective weapons system. They are two emotional Exocets, aimed straight at the heart of Britain's family shoppers.

In the months to come, these two charming under-fives will star in a TV campaign that could determine the outcome of the multi-billion-pound struggle for the nation's trolley trade.

According to market research statistics, six out of 10 readers should already recognise the likely lad on the left in this picture as Harry, the Safeway kid. He even has a growing fan following, with thousands of smitten mums and youngsters requesting photos of their little hero, and has become such a big star that his ads are understood to have accounted for a large slice of last year's 11 per cent profit increase for Safeway.

Now his employers are putting the heat on the opposition by introducing a "leading lady", Molly, to double the appeal of their award-winning pounds 10m advertising campaign.

However, the couple's first on-screen encounter, which featured a cheeky chat-up scene voiced-over on their behalf by a pair of adult actors, has not gone entirely to plan. Despite its apparent success with the 17 million viewers who first saw the advert in the commercial break in the middle of Coronation Street, there have been claims that it could incite paedophiles.

And now the question is to be raised in Parliament. The Labour MP Tony Banks, supported by a cross-party group of fellow back- benchers, has put down an early- day motion fiercely accusing Safeway of exploiting children and encouraging paedophile behaviour.

But is this a legitimate cause for concern or just another aspect of life in Britain in the neurotic Nineties?

"I find this advert quite deplorable. It involves an overtly sexual situation which is handled in an unsophisticated, stereotypical way," said Mr Banks, who represents Newham North West. "I watched it a couple of times and thought initially that it was a bit tacky, rather unnecessary and a bit pervy. I mentioned it to some colleagues and they felt the same.

"I don't find this sort of advertising at all cute; it is in fact highly cynical and exploitative. At one level the makers are playing to a silly sentimentality; on another level they are dangerously encouraging people who molest children, and who like to think that very young children have advanced sexual thoughts."

In the disputed scene the boy, Harry, meets Molly in a Safeway creche and an actor's voice says on his behalf: "Do you come here often, then?"

She is seen to reply with the blunt putdown: "Has that line ever worked?" Later, as she leaves, he says: "I suppose a snog's out of the question?"

Susan Hope-Borland, a psychologist who has worked with paedophiles for more than 10 years, supports the MP's argument. She fears these apparently harmless and amusing scenes will in fact serve to reinforce paedophiles' grossly distorted beliefs about normal childhood behaviour.

"The implied message in this advert will, unfortunately, fit in with the thought processes of many paedophiles," said Ms Hope-Borland, who works with the North Wales Forensic Psychiatric Service.

"Paedophiles interpret normal gestures by children as deliberate acts of provocation; they believe that children are sexually aware, and this cognitive distortion is used to justify their behaviour. This kind of advert is certainly not helpful and could be dangerous."

Adam Leigh, account director at the agency Bates Dorland, who made the ad, rejects the argument. He estimates that by now as many as 30 million people will have seen the "When Harry met Molly" ad but says the agency received no more than 20 complaints.

"We had three times as many as that when we ran the Christmas ad and Harry made it clear he didn't believe in Father Christmas. I believe these criticisms reflect more on our accusers than on ourselves. We know how much consumers love it.

"All our scripts are regulated by the Independent Television Commission. The children love doing them, and we see this series as a very popular, light-hearted method of getting a variety of messages across to consumers.

"There is no question of a story emerging - this will be nothing like the Gold Blend couple. Instead there will be a bit of banter between the kids and a series of witty observations, and their respective characters will develop."

For the past 18 months Harry has been played by four-year-old Jack Hanford, who lives with his mother, Donna, in Manchester.

He was chosen from more than 1,500 hopefuls and now the seasoned veteran is understood to have a pounds 20,000 trust fund and the chance of a career as a child actor before him.

A large part of his success, however, rests with the laddish voice-over of Men Behaving Badly actor Martin Clunes, who appears to articulate his unspoken thoughts.

Molly, who is expected to become every bit as big a star as Harry, is played by three-year-old Rosie Purkiss-McEndoo from North Yorkshire, who beat a similar field to land the coveted role. Molly's surprisingly sassy one-liners are delivered on her behalf by the actress Lesley Sharpe.

Dr Brian Young of Exeter University has studied the role of children in television advertising. "Families are being targeted in these advertisements - Safeway is selling itself as a child-friendly environment. Marketing to the family is obviously an acceptable exercise, but whether or not it is legitimate for children to be used in this way is clearly a different matter."

But whatever the outcome of the row over the morality and contents of the ads, one thing is certain: the marketing show will go on.

Safeway stores are to sell a whole range of "When Harry met Molly" merchandising, including mugs, badges and fridge magnets.