COVER STORY: Unsentimental education

When culture secretary Tessa Jowell stands up to speak at the launch of the Media Smart initiative later this month, she will give brand owners a massive boost in their battle against moves to ban advertising to children.

Media Smart, representing some of the UK’s biggest children’s advertisers such as Procter & Gamble (P&G) – maker of Pringles crisps and Sunny Delight – and chocolate giants Mars and Cadbury Trebor Bassett, has won the backing of Jowell for its campaign to “educate children to be better consumers”.

Based on a similar scheme in Canada called Concerned Children’s Advertisers, which has run for the past 12 years, Media Smart will run television ads in the UK aiming to “help children develop the ability to understand and interpret advertising effectively from an early age”.

Launching on November 13, educational materials for the project will be sent to primary schools for use by teachers in media literacy classes. Children between the ages of six and 11 will be “taught” to distinguish TV ads from programmes, and shown how to spend their pocket money on different brands they have seen advertised.

An ad promoting the initiative called Home Hippo is being adapted from Canada by agency Burkitt.DDB, which plans to show it on UK children’s television, assuming broadcasters donate free airtime. It shows a Hippo running through an apartment, and directs children to a website to explain how post-production techniques enable this. According to Hugh Burkitt, the agency’s former head: “The ad suggests kids should always ask questions and not take things at face value. That is what media literacy is all about.”

Is he suggesting that some ads may not always be totally straightforward, or that some may feature exaggerated or even misleading claims? That there may be a mismatch between the claims made in the ads and the reality of the products? That children may be persuaded to buy – or pester their parents to buy for them – unsuitable products? “You may care to say that,” says Burkitt, though he declines to comment.

But it seems clear that Media Smart will give children a sugar-coated lesson in advertising. It will steer away from the controversies that have dogged advertisers during the past decade. Since the Nineties, advertisers have homed in on youth and children’s markets as sources of growth while adult markets stagnated. Concerns have been raised that advertisers are saturating society with commercial messages targeting children through costly TV advertising and a concerted campaign to turn schools into another arm of marketing.

Advertisers have achieved quite a coup in securing backing from Jowell, who it is understood is also supporting proposals for the self-regulation of TV ads. A spokeswoman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) says: “In relation to advertising, it is important that children are encouraged to develop specific skills, such as an awareness and ability to assess the commercial messages within programmes and develop a critical approach to advertising. The Government believes that media literacy initiatives such as Media Smart will help them to do this.”

Media Smart’s role model, Concerned Children’s Advertisers (CCA) was set up 12 years ago in Canada – the country that produced branding’s most vocal critic, Naomi Klein. CCA produces regular TV ads and education packs on children’s issues such as bullying and the stereo-typing of girls, and states that one of its aims is “helping children to build healthy lives”.

Behind the CCA are companies such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Nestlé and sweet manufacturer Hershey. It may surprise some people to learn that manufacturers of soft drinks and sweets maintain that they are trying to help children build healthy lives. The involvement of McDonald’s is also notable. According to Justice Rodger Bell who presided over the UK McLibel trial in 1997, Greenpeace protesters were justified in saying in a leaflet that McDonald’s did “exploit” children through its advertising.

In the UK, neither McDonald’s nor Coca-Cola have signed up to Media Smart, though both say they support it and are considering joining. Apart from P&G, Cadbury Trebor Bassett and Mars, other marketers backing the initiative – and reportedly paying £50,000 each (though this is denied by Media Smart) – are Hasbro and Kellogg. BSkyB and GMTV are reportedly providing free media space. Trade bodies the Advertising Association and the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) are backing it – free. The National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations (NCPTA) is also involved and appears to provide Media Smart with some credible support from the educational establishment.

NCPTA chairman Peter Tompkins explains how the Parent Teacher Associations’ national body got involved with Media Smart. “I know Malcolm Earnshaw, director-general of ISBA, I am a strategic marketing consultant. I work with companies like Mars, P&G and the BBC.” He says that the NCPTA represents PTAs from 12,000 of the country’s 28,000 schools. “We talked to staff and then to the trustees, and we have informed them this is something that we are doing.”

It has been alleged that Media Smart’s planned launch in June was delayed because it could not find enough support from advertisers, though this is denied by Jackson, who says the delay was due to a realisation that it would be foolish to launch an educational scheme at the beginning of the school summer holidays.

But the absence of some of the UK’s biggest children’s advertisers (such as Walkers crisps) raises questions about how much it actually represents the UK industry. It appears to be a self-appointed protector of the interests of children’s advertisers. But many of these companies may prefer to keep quiet about this controversial issue rather than trying to hike it up the agenda.

One thing is clear: the battle lines are becoming ever-more clearly drawn between the opposing, emotive issues of commercial exploitation of children and the freedom of speech for advertisers. Tessa Jowell has come down firmly on the side of children’s advertisers. But you don’t need much media literacy training to interpret the motives of Media Smart – it is there to protect the interests, and ultimately the profits, of some of the world’s biggest companies.

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