According to recent work by Millward Brown and the Keller Fay Group 76% of us do not believe that advertising tells the truth but 68% of us trust our peers.  It’s not surprising then that advertisers want to harness peer-to-peer marketing.

But should companies be allowed to pay children under 16 in cash or in kind to promote products to their friends?

The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) is currently conducting a review to help it decide if a ban on using children in this way as “Brand Ambassadors” should be part of its self-regulatory code.

Mumsnet have put a discussion thread on their website.  See what parents think.


To-day saw more progress on protecting children from commercialisation and sexualisation as No. 10 announced more actions in response to the Bailey Review of last June.  There is to be a consultation on extending the age rating system to more music DVDs and Blu-Ray discs; You Tube are to give the music industry the facility to label online videos as “explicit”; legislation for clearer age ratings for video games is to come into force in July; and the ASA is to investigate labelling “advergames” on the internet.

These measures come in addition to a range of announcements last October which included the launch of Parent Port by the media regulators; stricter guidelines by ASA on sexual imagery on billboards; “Active Choice” mechanisms by ISPs to allow parents to decide what they do and don’t want their children to access on the internet; and the current consultation by CAP on banning the involvement of under 16s in brand ambassador and peer-to-peer marketing campaigns.

It’s all good stuff.  It’s also encouraging to see the Children’s Minister Sarah Teather acknowledging that “many parents are fed up with their children being surrounded by adult images as they grow up and being targeted aggressively to get the latest “must-have” items” and that she believes, “the onus has to be on industry to stop undermining parents trying to bring up their own children, the way they want.”  In a government press release she goes on to say that, “we’re keeping the pressure up on businesses so they listen and act on parents’ concerns.  It’s not acceptable for industry to simply ignore families’ worries.”

I couldn’t agree with her more.  In fact this was the message of a Key Note I delivered to-day at the ISM-Open Social Marketing Conference on the theme of Taking Responsibility.   The last 4 years have seen 5 different Westminster-funded reports into the social consequences for children of corporate activities and we have learned a lot from these about how the commercial world affects children’s wellbeing as well as about the process of stakeholders taking responsibility.  It seems to me that the overwhelming message from evidence gathered in these reports is that, as Sarah Teather points out, parents are fed-up with fighting corporate activity.  As one parent interviewed for the Bailey Review put it, “there is a need for such a huge cultural shift away from consumerism that I feel powerless as an individual to act.” But parents shouldn’t have to act as individuals they should be supported by government, industry and, of course, each other.

The commercial world of course offers children all sorts of exciting things from toys and games to songs and style but we can’t deny that it also has negative social consequences. It is now quite clear from the evidence that TV advertising affects children’s health behaviours in relation to smoking, drinking alcohol and eating less healthy foods.  It’s also clear that size zero models do nothing for girls’ self-esteem just as the new “six-pack and stacked” male models do nothing for boys’.   We also now know that the theories we used to ascertain whether advertising to children is fair are badly outdated: whilst older children are capable of understanding TV adverts, they are no less susceptible than younger children to the effects of new immersive types of advertising such as advergames, product placements and co-creations.  We also know that what matters to children above all else is their relationships with their family and friends and that anything that interferes with these relationships is harmful.  That’s why brand ambassador programmes which essentially commercialise friendship are corrosive and why family arguments caused by the pestering which results from excessive adverting can have very negative effects on children’s mental wellbeing.

So any government pressure on industry to take its responsibility is welcome and industry has begun to respond.  However, the measures announced to-day and those announced last October will fail to make life easier for parents unless two further things happen.  Firstly there must be compliance mechanisms for any new measure introduced because with all the will in the world, unless there is some policing measure in place then a corporation’s profit motive will always win out over the responsibility agenda.  So the “consultations”, “guidelines” and “investigations” outlined above have to be followed through so that they are enshrined in a code which is rigorously enforced by an independent body (such as the ASA for advertising).  Secondly there must be awareness-raising amongst parents and amongst marketers.  To-day, in a hall of marketing academics highly attuned to debates over responsible marketing (and many of them parents) not a single person had heard of Parent Port and I suspect the same would be true in a hall of marketing managers.  A place to complain is completely useless if parents don’t know where it is.

So if responsible business is to remain responsible the fine words need to be matched with fine compliance and the message needs to be spread.  A small levy on advertisers could cover the cost of a mass advertising campaign to tell parents about peer-to-peer marketing; to explain what an advergame is and why it should be labelled; and to tell them what to do when they are “fed-up …with their children being aggressively targeted.”  If there was mass awareness of the effects of marketing on children then maybe parents would start to discuss it with their friends just like they do when they see a new product advertised on telly.  And maybe then they would stop feeling powerless to act as individuals and start to act collectively.  Perhaps this could be the beginning of what another Keynote speaker Frank den Hond was discussing at the conference to-day – a social movement by parents for parents to reclaim their children.