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Europe puts mute on kid ads

The EU is launching a study of children's TV ads, already limited in

With the pre-Christmas TV advertising blitz in full swing, and your kids presenting you with computer printouts of their holiday wish list, you think there is no escape from Pokmon, LEGO, Teletubby, and Barbie ads? Think again. Think Sweden.

Or Norway, or Austria. Those countries all ban ads before, during, or after children's television programs. And there are signs that other European governments are thinking of following suit.

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"The debate seems to be going in favor of more restrictions on advertising to children all across Europe," says Lionel Stanbrook, deputy director of the Advertising Association, which represents British advertisers.

In Britain, where the average child watches nearly 18,000 ads a year, some parents might welcome such restrictions.

In Sweden, the law forbidding all TV advertising aimed at children under 12 is overwhelmingly popular among the public and politicians. (In the United States, children watching three hours of TV a day - the norm - see about 25,000 spots a year. Any attempt to restrict them would be challenged under First Amendment guarantees of free speech.) There are no Continent-wide rules: In Norway, Austria, and the Flemish part of Belgium no advertising is allowed around children's programs; toy ads are banned on Greek TV, while Italy, Poland, Denmark, and Latvia are studying plans for tighter regulations.

The European Commission, the European Union's ruling body, is to launch a continent-wide study of the issue next month. "The idea," says Commission official Aviva Silver, "is that the study would form the basis for any revision [of EU rules] that was seen to be necessary."

Sweden is pushing hard for its ban on children's advertising to be extended across Europe. "Young children do not understand what advertising is all about," says Axel Edling, Sweden's consumer ombudsman. "Our research has shown that a child can't distinguish between commercials and programs until they are 5 or 6, and that they don't really understand the commercial purpose behind advertising until they are 10 or 12."

Advertisers challenge that. "I don't think we have any way of really knowing whether ads are distinguishable or not in a child's mind," says Mr. Stanbrook. "Ads that take advantage of children should not be broadcast.... The key point is, are they being ripped off?"

Studies have shown that children pay much more attention to advertisements than grownups and that they are three times more likely than their parents to remember a brand name from an ad.

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"Children are much easier to reach with advertising. They like ads and they pick up on them really fast," said Stephen Colegrave, marketing director for Saatchi and Saatchi, a leading international ad agency, on British television last month. "Quite often we can exploit that relationship and get them pestering their parents."

Although in the holiday season, of course, toys and games are filling the airwaves. for the rest of the year the bulk of the ads on European television aimed at children tout candy, breakfast cereals, fast foods, and snacks.

A recent study by Consumers International, a London-based watchdog organization, found that 95 percent of ads on British TV aimed at children were for foods that are high in fat, high in sugar, or high in salt.

"TV advertising tends to persuade kids to eat all the wrong things," says Peta Cottee, projects director for Sustain, a British umbrella organization of citizens' groups concerned about food and health. "TV is a very powerful tool in persuading kids what they want, and to pester their parents as they go round supermarkets."

"Pester power" is not meant to rule unchecked: an EU directive regulating TV advertising prohibits anything that "directly encourage[s] minors to persuade their parents or others to purchase the goods or services being advertised." But you don't have to spend long in a French supermarket listening to conversations between parents and their offspring to know that few children appear to have read the EU directive.

Even in countries where the law is not draconian, the "TV Without Frontiers" directive specifies that "advertising shall be readily recognizable as such." For Lars Marn, deputy director of the media division in the Swedish Culture Ministry, "If it is true that children under a certain age don't understand what advertising is all about, any advertisement aimed at those children is violating the rules."

Mr. Maren says Sweden is preparing to use its presidency of the EU, starting in January 2001, to press its case on fellow EU members. "As president you have some power over part of the agenda.... One issue Sweden finds important is the situation of children in the new media landscape."

Stanbrook is already fighting back, organizing lobbying sessions with members of the European Parliament and Commission officials. He foresees a "lively debate," and expects to be able to ward off a Europe-wide ban on TV advertising to children.

Maren is not so sure. "When [Swedish Culture Minister] Marita Ulvskog first began pushing this question, there was no interest at all among her European colleagues," he says. "But at last month's meeting of European culture ministers, she said she found half of them sympathetic."

Take note, Pikachu.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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