Temptation-Free Television for Children?

By Dumont, Pascaline | UNESCO Courier, September 2001 | Go to article overview
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Temptation-Free Television for Children?

Dumont, Pascaline, UNESCO Courier

Advertisers spend millions to reach children via television, but how gullible is this young audience? The debate over whether TV advertising aimed at children should be banned or regulated is in full swing

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 Geneve 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 (see box), 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 Bjustrom, 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.

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