Few readers will have trouble with the idea that advertisers should enjoy almost unfettered freedom to promote their wares. ‘Almost unfettered’, because even the most laissez faire of economic models must surely allow for minimal social constraints; the sort of thing enshrined in the legal, decent, honest and truthful provisions of the CAP code. By contrast, less light-touch regimes offer politicians and other self-interested busybodies an opportunity to meddle with the free workings of the market. And what right have they to dictate to consumers what they should, and shouldn’t, buy?
So far, so simple. But what ought we to make of a more complex issue such as the Media Smart initiative, which purports to educate children from the age of six upwards in the ways of media literacy? Advertisers will see no inconsistency here in their inalienable right to plug a commercial message, and perhaps take a leaf out of the Jesuits’ book. After all, what better time to get to their audience than when it is young and impressionable? They will be encouraged by the success of a similar programme – the prototype – in Canada, and further gratified by the support the present initiative is gaining in non-commercial circles. The National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations provides credible endorsement from the teaching profession. But the biggest coup is in getting culture secretary Tessa Jowell – an advocate of the light touch if ever there was one – to sign up. What could be more wholesome and commendable than that?
As ever with complicated issues, the devil is in the detail. And herein, for the moment at least, lies a major difficulty. For the detail of Media Smart – its content, precise message and duration – is extremely sparse, only a week ahead of its launch. It is easy to see how more sceptical minds might fill the information void with uncharitable thoughts. Is Media Smart an altruistic attempt to enable kids to tell the difference between programmes and ads, while at the same time promoting disinterested and sound judgement? Or does it cloak more sinister, ulterior motives which have managed to dupe people who should know better? The issue of childhood innocence and its legitimate boundaries is an emotive and slippery one, as the likes of Labour MP Debra Shipley, Mr Justice Rodger Bell and the new Archbishop of Canterbury have, in their very different ways, pointed out. Shipley recently managed to engage a considerable number of MPs in a parliamentary crusade to ban advertising to children. Bell was the judge who presided over the McLibel trial and designated McDonald’s an ‘exploiter’ of children. The Most Reverend Dr Rowan Williams is well known for his uncharitable views on the merchandising activities of Disney.
It would be a great pity if this initiative got more publicity than it really deserved through poor communication of its aims. Although Mars, Cadbury Trebor Bassett and Procter & Gamble – among others – have already signed up to Media Smart, other well-known brands are hanging back, presumably waiting to see what happens. They are right to do so.