Temptation-free television for children?
September 28, 2001 - by Pascaline Dumont

In 1932, the American psychologist Edward Chace Tolman said, "Give me a child from any background and I’ll turn him into anything you want—a scientist, politician or even a criminal." Although the theorist of manipulative education never achieved convincing results, today his methods are discretely emulated by big-name brands and advertising agencies that use television to try and turn children into consumers.
Children are an ideal target, simply because they are avid television viewers. A survey of seven to 12-year-olds in France and Switzerland by the newspaper Journal de Genève shows that they spend an average of two and a half hours in front of their sets every day. Little Germans watch less, while American children consume between four and five hours of television every day! Food, toy, clothing and record companies already invest millions of euros to win them over. In the United States, the Consumers’ Union says each child sees 30,000 commercials a year.

Their behaviour shows it: they choose what they consume, insist on their favourite brands and influence their family’s choices. "More than ever, children are making decisions and voicing their desires at an increasingly early age," says Claude-Yves Robin, general manager of the French children’s cable television network Canal J. In an interview with the French daily Le Monde, Moeata Melard, a children’s market specialist with the MSM Marketing Research agency, claimed that "over half" of innovations such as electronic games, CD-Roms and multimedia products "reach households through children." In more than 50 percent of families, parents are said to agree to their offspring’s requests simply to avoid an argument.

Children’s exposure to television advertising is hardly a new debate. "Many studies have shown that children under eight cannot tell the difference between a programme and a commercial," reports the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has taken a clear stance: "We consider that advertising aimed at children is deceptive." In the U.S., many psychologists criticize advertisers’ methods, arguing that they sometimes border on mind control.

Just one-third of the European Union’s member states have passed laws in the framework of the Television without Frontiers directive, but most of them are quite loose. Sweden is the only one that has adopted strict regulations.

A hard sell for the Swedish model

Erling Bjürstrom, a communications professor whose research was used to draft the law, says that children under 10 are incapable of telling the difference between a commercial and a programme, and cannot understand the purpose of a commercial until the age of 12. In light of those findings, Sweden banned all advertising during children’s prime time in 1991, when private networks started broadcasting. Furthermore, commercials featuring characters children are familiar with are prohibited until 9 p.m. during the week and 10 p.m. on weekends.

Standing by its policy, Sweden would like other European countries to follow suit. In May 2001, when her country held the rotating European Union presidency, Culture Minister Marita Ulvskog held a conference on the issue with her European counterparts. The debate is timely because the Television without Frontiers directive is up for revision in 2002. Several states—Greece and Portugal in the south, Great Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands in the north—have already come out in favour of strengthening European regulations, while the others are satisfied with the status quo, which lets each country decide on its own measures.

Since the item is on the European Union agenda, communication professionals have been girding themselves for battle. Their first argument is globalization. "Nothing will keep thematic networks from broadcasting advertising aimed at children," says Robert Gerson, the former head in France of Mattel, which makes, among other things, Barbie dolls. The exponential growth of satellite multi-channel packages in Europe, a powerful springboard for American networks such as MTV, Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, would make it impossible to enforce such a Europe-wide ban. In Sweden, TV3 and Kanal 5, two private networks broadcasting from Great Britain, simply operate outside the law.

The second line of defence is that bombarding children with advertising is harmless. The Advertising Education Forum—an organization whose board of directors includes advertisers, broadcasters and communication consulting agencies—has just published the findings of a survey of 5,000 parents in 20 European countries. Some 85 percent of those polled said that advertising has little or no effect on their offspring.

In the past few years, Jeffrey Goldstein, a researcher in the communications department at the University of Utrecht (the Netherlands), has conducted four surveys for the European Commission in Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands and Great Britain. "There is no convincing proof," he wrote, "that advertising affects children’s values, eating habits, smoking and consumption of alcohol… Children are more influenced by their parents and playmates than the media." And he concludes that "people exaggerate the power of advertising simply because it is omnipresent."

Bringing up critical consumers

Goldstein has just completed a separate report for the European Commission as part of its revision of the Television without Frontiers directive. "He appeals to advertisers’ sense of responsibility," says Daniel Aboaf, vice-president of the European Toy Industry (ETI), a manufacturers’ organization. "Self-regulation based on simple guidelines is better than prohibitive measures."

To prove that their influence on children is weak, advertisers also stress the price argument. They claim it costs three times less to reach a child than an adult through advertising. The new generation is more diverse, thus harder to target and create brand loyalty. Although they are influenced by whatever’s new, advertisers claim it’s more difficult to capture their attention. In a study requested by the European Commission, Reinhold Bergler, a university professor in Bonn, shows that 33.6 percent of children under six express scepticism with regard to advertising’s credibility.

Defenders of the status quo, then, argue that despite the substantial amounts of money poured into advertising that targets children, it has little effect on them. Pushing the paradox further, they emphasize that children have a strong critical sense. And a sense of responsibility. Rather than deprive them of advertising, it would be better to teach them how to watch it. "It’s up to parents and teachers to teach children the realities of the commercial world. Just like they teach them how to cross the street," says the British magazine The Economist.

Bound by money

Television networks and producers have also taken sides in the debate, pointing out that children’s advertising creates jobs. In the European Union, revenues from this business have reached between 670 million to one billion euros ($620 and $930 million) a year. In countries that have imposed quotas to encourage the development of home-grown entertainment, that income finances domestically-produced shows and curbs imports of series and cartoons from the United States and Japan. France, for example, is now the world’s third-leading producer of cartoon series. But with just 300 hours, that country is still far behind the two world leaders.

But regardless of whether one prefers European series to their foreign counterparts for reasons of style or culture, their purpose remains the same. Whenever advertising finances programming, the main aim is to attract an audience, preferably a specific one, towards the product. Television and business are unabashed about their incestuous relationship. As soon as a series is successful, the characters are licensed to sweet-makers, fast food chains and service stations, which duplicate them ad nauseaum. A case in point is the Japanese series Pokemon.

"Any prohibition or additional restrictions on children’s advertising in Europe would have a devastating effect on television production," says Cindy Rose, a lobbyist for the Walt Disney group in Brussels. Her concern is not limited to defending artistic creation and the jobs that go with it. In addition to selling programmes to television networks, the Eurodisney park, movies and countless derivative products also fuel the company’s prosperity in Europe. Production and advertising feed off one another.

Companies in the classroom

Whatever their future on television networks, advertisers are already active in other areas. The increased presence of companies in schools is a worrisome trend for many childhood specialists. Fast food, soda, sports shoe and clothing brands do more than distribute samples and advertising kits with the quiet complicity of teachers. "Product managers think that each cafeteria, each classroom…is a serious opportunity to chase after whatever’s cool," writes Naomi Klein in No Logo (Picador, 2000). The government in Britain has had no qualms about asking private companies to rescue public schools with dwindling resources.

Even in this area, television plays a role. In the United States, the private Channel One network, which broadcasts educational programmes to an estimated eight million children in 12,000 schools, charges advertisers twice as much as general interest networks. The paradise of childhood is green, the colour of the dollar.


Pascaline Dumont is a French freelance journalist working for the UNESCO Courier

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