Ban on ads 'won't stop demand for kids' stuff'

Moves to stop TV commercials aimed at children are doomed to fail, a Government adviser warns. By Adam Sherwin

Adam Sherwin
Thursday 15 September 2011 10:00
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A leaked No 10 report suggested banning advertising to the under-16s.
The most popular brands in this sector includes Walkers crisps
A leaked No 10 report suggested banning advertising to the under-16s. The most popular brands in this sector includes Walkers crisps

Aproposal 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 youngsters through television, radio, billboards and online advertising would put commercial children's channels out of business and also hit food, electronics and entertainment giants.

But Reg Bailey, chief executive of the Mothers Union, who published a report into the commercialisation and sexualisation of young children for the Government, said that insidious marketing via the internet would make an advertising ban ineffective.

The Downing Street leak coincided with the publication of a Unicef report which warned that materialism had come to dominate family life in the UK as parents "pointlessly" amass goods for their children to compensate for their long working hours.

Unicef suggested that the obsession with consumer goods was one of the underlying causes of last month's riots and widespread 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.

By contrast, 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 and the pace of technical change is unrelenting. Regulators are behind the eight ball."

Mr Bailey did agree with the Unicef analysis. He 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 overall.

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 further because research showed that "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 the other major web players before it threatens legislation.

Dr Agnes Nairn, an academic and marketing expert who wrote the Unicef report, said: "While children would prefer time with their parents to heaps of consumer goods, (their) parents seem to find themselves 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," Dr Nairn added.

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