For this sector of advertising is big business: today's children command spending power of pounds 1.5bn a year. And four- to seven- year-olds watch an average of 21 hours of television each week, often unsupervised.
The sensitivity of the area was recently highlighted in a row that erupted over British Telecom's attempts to persuade children to use the phone more often. Parental guilt was targeted with captions such as, 'Do you ever wish your kids would use the phone more? In these days of video games, TV and personal stereos, it's all too easy for sensitive kids to disappear into worlds of their own . . . They may say they have no friends and don't want any. In fact, they're desperate to join a group.' The accompanying picture showed an isolated teenager surrounded by darkness and gazing fixedly at a television set.
The row that followed concerned issues such as how children best make friends (not necessarily over the phone) and whether it is moral to encourage young people to run up even larger phone bills.
It also touched on a general unease about advertising aimed directly at children.
For children are also increasingly influential in adult purchases, way beyond traditional areas such as cereals and toys. Clothing, microwaveable food, sophisticated electronics, hi-fi and computers all benefit from winning over children, who then put pressure on their parents or buy such items from their own budgets. In the US, even car advertising is now aimed at a younger audience.
In a seminar organised recently by the Advertising Standards Authority, executives, regulators and critics met to discuss the topic of playing fair with children's advertising. Some of those present denied there was any problem. Solemn men in suits as
sured the seminar that the youth market was made up of independent children highly resistant to purchasing items they did not want, however brilliant the advertising campaign. These children are more influenced by their peer group or parents.
Others did not see it like this. A psychiatrist and later a magistrate both mentioned young offenders they knew who had mugged others for the money needed to buy themselves expensive trainers. Advertising that continues to play upon this dangerous craze aggravates an already bad situation. Parents of all incomes can also be mercilessly nagged into spending up to pounds 90 on trendy footwear.
This youthful insistence is often driven by thoughts of personal survival as well as by modishness. A fashionably shod youngster feels socially secure, particularly when starting at a new, bigger school. The wrong shoes can invite ridicule, or worse.
Between these opposing arguments stands the Advertising Standards Authority, a high-minded, rather Victorian body devoted to maintaining acceptable advertising techniques through a close accommodation with the commercial status quo. Under its rules, offensive advertisements are often changed after consultation at an early stage. Other undesirable ones that slip through may be condemned later. Last year these included an ad showing a grinning boy and two scowling companions under the slogan, 'Who's got the new computer then?' This had to go, because the ASA states that: 'No advertisement should cause children to believe they will be inferior to other children, or unpopular with them, if they do not buy a particular product.'
Also withdrawn was an advertisement that exploited child nudity. Sexual offenders often collect and study such pictures, using them as a basis for fantasy that is occasionally acted out for real. But ads featuring skeletal adult fashion models who look like pre-pubescent girls are still acceptable because rules that apply to adults' advertising are different from those operating for children. And, of course, children do see adult advertising.
New difficulties now arise over the government's Nutritional Task Force proposals. An aim to reduce average fat intake by the year 2000 sits uneasily with the ads for sweets and sugary drinks
that form the bulk of television advertising for the young. In the absence of a complete ban, advertisers understandably look for guidance, since over-involvement with the cause of healthy eating has led to inconsistencies before.
Ten years ago, cereal packets urged purchasers to eat their products along with 'a good breakfast'. Today, that 'good' breakfast looks like a dietician's nightmare. So long as food experts remain divided over what we should eat, it is hard to give advertisers a clear lead.
Now that television has taken over so much of the parental function, commercials can expect more criticism of the type once aimed at parents thought to be setting a bad example. Such criticism is not always fair. The common belief that advertising encourages illegal under-age drinking is based on a widespread misapprehension about the legal age for alcohol consumption (which happens to be five).
If society wants to change this state of affairs it should alter the law. Blaming advertisers for making alcoholic drinks appeal to young people is a different issue, and one that the industry always has to take seriously.
In fact, current British advertising is quite tightly controlled. Tomorrow's nightmare is universal satellite television with unscrupulous commercials escaping any national system of control. In these circumstances, even Benetton ads could one day appear as innocuous as the Milky Bar Kid seems to those who remember an age of advertising innocenceyears ago.
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