Advertising to kids remains on Euro Parliament agenda


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Despite receiving praise the from the European Commission on how it is self-regulating food marketing, the industry still faces a number of challenges on the sensitive issue of marketing to children. Recent attempts by the far left in the European Parliament to restrict advertising to under 12s may have been stopped in their tracks but an appetite for further legislation still clearly remains in some quarters of the European Parliament.

A new initiative in the Parliament's Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) Committee initiated by the Spanish Socialist MEP, Maria Irigoyen Perez, looks likely to culminate in a report detailing a “Strategy for strengthening the rights of vulnerable consumers”. Although the content of the draft report has yet to be agreed, a first exchange of views held on November 22nd suggested that the protection of children from advertising could be one of the report's priorities.

Maria Irigoyen Perez presented her ideas for strengthening the protection of vulnerable consumers, especially children. “The aim of this report to protect the weak against the strong”, she pointed out. During the ensuing debate, several members took the floor to say that children should be protected from advertising.

And who wouldn't disagree that children should be afforded special protection, given their relative inexperience of the commercial world? The problem with this type of proposal is that, despite undeniably noble intentions, it falls down in terms of the practicalities.

Firstly, how do you isolate children from advertising? In today's media-filled world, isn't it fanciful to think you can just wrap kids in cotton wool? Especially when children are interacting with media in a way that was unimaginable just a generation ago? When more traffic came onto the road, did we ban the traffic? Or did we teach children how to cross the road?

The best way of teaching children the skills to be critical consumers is through education. Programmes like Media Smart have already successfully equipped over four million European children in nine countries with the ability to deconstruct and scrutinize advertising. Surely this is the best way to prepare them for the commercial world rather than playing Jean-Jacques Rousseau but 250 years too late?

Secondly, as children will always see ads designed for adults, a total ban of advertising to under 12s, as proposed in a recent draft Parliament report, could lead to a de facto total ban on advertising. We sometimes forget how advertising funds a free press, sports and culture and, most importantly, is a key driver of economic growth. Media investment in advertising can be directly correlated with GDP growth. A ban on advertising to adults would be both disproportionate and counter-productive at any time. Let alone in the current economic climate.

Finally, children are already well protected by various pieces of legislation which regulate advertising. The Directives on Audio-visual Media Services (AMS) and Unfair Commercial Practices (UCP) already include very specific provisions on advertising to children. They forbid the use of “pester power,” the advertising of inappropriate products to children, such as alcohol, and call for industry to self-regulate in terms of which foods it advertises to children. On the last point, the EU Pledge has made a real difference in terms of changing the foods that children are exposed to, resulting in a strong recent endorsement from the European Commission.

Creating an environment that helps, rather than prevents, a child make the right decision, is an objective that we should all share. But don't ad bans just sound like old school solutions to new world conundrums?

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