Like many of the key arguments about the future of advertising in Europe, the current battle over advertising to children is widely perceived as a straightforward clash between moral priorities and commercial ones.
Although driven by a variety of motives, not least protectionist trade policies, those who are lobbying in Brussels for a pan-European ban are generally doing so on the grounds that advertising is somehow bad for children.
They argue that until the age of 12, children are unable to differentiate between programming and advertising. In addition they complain that advertising encourages children to pester parents to buy products, regardless of cost.
It would be foolish to suggest that advertising does not generate consumer interest, but it is equally inane to be swept away on a tide of emotional argument based on anti-advertising prejudice and ignorance.
Those who oppose advertising to children under any circumstances generally tend to ignore economic realities and to reject out of hand the possibility that advertising could actually help to bring social benefit. They also fail to take account of the wide-ranging implications that their proposals hold for children’s programming as well as for the availability and price of children’s products in the retail market.
A study conducted recently by the European Group of Television Advertising, the representative body for some 25 public broadcasters, shows that member stations derive six per cent of their revenue from children’s advertising. Loss of this advertising revenue would seriously threaten investment in children’s programming.
In addition to the dangers to children’s programming budgets, the denial of consumer product information inevitably leads to fewer new product launches. This not only causes an erosion of consumer choice, but by reducing foreign competition for national manufacturers, opens the door to higher retail prices and removes any incentive for local manufacturers to develop and launch innovative new products.
Advertisers recognise that advertising to children must be carefully monitored and controlled, and it is quite right that rules and guidelines exist to ensure that such communications are handled responsibly.
But the role and value of advertising is broader and more positive than its detractors seem capable of appreciating. Only by acknowledging all the commercial and social realities can there be any hope of reaching a fair and mutually satisfactory solution on this long-standing and contentious issue.