A few years back, a leading cosmetics company launched its "Ten Years Younger" brand of face creams.
Every time the ad came on TV, my son, who was six at the time, urged me to buy the product, not, as it turned out, because he gave two hoots about his mum's appearance, but because he wanted to try the miracle for himself. With unassailable logic he had worked out that if the cream took 10 years off your real age, it would make him disappear altogether, a quality that could only boost his career as a junior spy.
Children live and they learn. I imagine my kids have noticed by now that the many jars in the bathroom marked "youth" and "beauty" have not made their mother noticeably more gorgeous. I've noticed it myself, but you can't, yet, legislate against hope. And I'm a little surprised at this week's earnest furore over the revelation that Twiggy's eye cream, a product advertised by a 60-year-old and aimed at the over-forties, does not in fact make her look like a teenager.
Checks and balance have their place. Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat MP who led the charge against airbrushing in advertising, had valid points to make about ads, aimed at teenagers, featuring unfeasibly thin models. I'd have thought, though, that by the time you're in the market for anti-wrinkle cream, you'd pretty much know the score.
For most of us in the capitalist world, the Truth About Advertising kicks in when we're ready for it, much like the Truth About Santa Claus. The idea, as mooted this week by Schools Secretary Ed Balls, that "media literacy" could usefully be placed on the national curriculum to help children to cope with exposure to commercial pressure seems to me a clear case of nuts and sledgehammers.
Let's not even explore the irony of a government lecturing us on commercialism while urging us to buy our way out of recession. No point probing the semantic niceties of "commerce" (good) and "commercialism" (evil). Because commercialism has become the cross-party shibboleth of our time. Much as grinchy types delight in telling you how they're not buying Christmas presents this year "because it's all so commercialised", politicians have seized on the C-word as a way of claiming moral superiority at zero personal cost. Bring children into the equation and you're laughing all the way to the high ground.
As a rule, I'm unfashionably fond of the nanny state, if only because it does things some parents won't or can't do. In issues of child protection, particularly, I'll err every time on the side of caution. I'm all for tightening legislation on advertising to children (but that would affect the bottom line, so I won't hold my breath) and I don't, for a second, dispute that children exposed to ever multiplying media should learn to discriminate between commercial pressure and useful information. I am, however, unconvinced that lessons traditionally learned, as a matter of instinct, in the home should be outsourced to schools.
According to Steve Fuller, a professor of sociology at Warwick University, children should be formally versed in "the language of advertising" from the age of five. "Media literacy," he says, "should have the same significance as reading, writing and numeracy skills – a fundamental skill that all people need to be considered fully functioning adults. To a certain extent kids already have this skill and they build it up through trial and error but I think it should be taught in a systematic way."
Budging up the basics to make room in an already creaking primary school curriculum for agenda-driven initiatives seems to me as progressive as putting the cart alongside the horse. The point, surely, of fundamental skills such as literacy and numeracy is that, properly taught, they can be applied to other, non-curricular areas of life. Teach a child to read and enjoy reading and he will learn as much about the art of persuasion from Philip Pullman (or – let's go for it – Dickens and Orwell) as he will from Procter & Gamble. And the beauty comes free.
Teach a child to count and he'll soon get the hang of commercial constraints. In fact, there is a very simple way of explaining the market economy to little ones. They see things. They want them.
You say, "No, because we can't afford it." It's a 30-second lesson that has worked for families right across the socio-economic spectrum for generations. You repeat the exercise, on a daily basis, for approximately 18 years, but eventually the message sinks in; resources are finite and few people in this world get everything their eye alights on.
There are other better uses for the resources of the Department for Children, Schools and Families than backing the "media literacy" initiative. We know what to expect from advertisers. This time it's the Government selling us something we don't need.