Leave Our Kids Alone?

April 11th, 2013

Leave Our Kids Alone, a campaign to ban advertising to primary school children was launched to-day with a letter to the Telegraph and a piece on the Today Programme.   John Humphrys branded this a non-starter.  But is it? To me it highlights the complex tension between conviction and evidence-based policy.

Clearly banning advertising is not a non-starter – other countries have done it.  Sweden famously banned TV advertising to under 12s in the 1990s.  OK, so a few companies went to the bother of broadcasting from Scotland (out of Swedish jurisdiction) and others are now trying to target children with new media, but for Sweden the ban was, above all, an important statement of political will.  A country that again ranks very considerably higher than the UK in the UNICEF Child Well-Being ratings wanted corporations to know that children need to be left alone from commercial pressures until they have a good understanding of how the commercial world works.  And the severity of their recent sanctions against Stardoll for aggressive advertising to young people on the internet  (www.kov.se ) shows that that political will is still alive and well.

In the UK, political will around advertising seems often to be conveniently paralysed by the rhetoric of “evidence-based” policy.   The advertising of High Salt Sugar and Fat foods in and around children’s programmes was finally banned in 2006 when it was decided that there was “enough evidence”  to constitute this.  However, this ban was not extended to the internet – partly because TV and internet are regulated by different codes (which of course makes little sense in to-day’s cross platform media environment).   In order for the ban on HSSF advertising to children to be extended from TV to the internet the ASA is insisting on a completely new evidence base – something they are well aware may take 20 years to establish.  That gives corporations ample opportunity to target children on the internet while we wait.  And with a tripling in mobile advertising announced yesterday we can assume that companies will be allowed to target children’s phones for as long as it takes for academics to gather the (mainly tax payers’) funds and resources to establish yet another media-specific evidence base.

And here we can see how “evidence-based” is not quite as transparent or simple a term as we might be led to believe, because when it comes to advertising to children, politicians and regulators have a choice of how to act before the evidence is firm.  Do they take the precautionary approach and assume that if HSSF products are banned on TV they should be banned everywhere else until there is hard evidence that the advertising on the internet or mobile phones or iPads is somehow more benign? Or do they begin with the assumption that advertising on all new media is automatically beneficial to children?  They have chosen the latter.  Interestingly this is certainly not a choice that is “evidence-based” because when DCFS/DCMS commissioned a review in 2009 it found precisely no empirical causal evidence that proves that advertising benefits children.

Which – somehow inevitably this week – leads us to Margaret Thatcher.   Whilst many of her policies were misguided, they were, as Jonathan Kent pointed out this morning, based on conviction and beliefs about what is important.  So what is fundamentally more important?  Allowing children to develop their understanding and awareness of the commercial world at a pace which parents dictate or the profits of the companies marketing to them?


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