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'Pester ads' aimed at children could become criminal offence

LONDON – The Department of Trade & Industry is due to unveil plans to crack down on the 'pester power' of ads in a move that could have a massive effect on confectionery, fast food and toy companies.

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A consultation paper is due to be released by the DTI later this week detailing how trading standards officers could bring criminal charges against companies accused of encouraging children to nag their parents for toys and junk food.

Last month, the European Parliament gave the green light to a wide-ranging EU Directive on consumer protection that will need to be implemented across all 25 member states by 2007, including the banning of "a direct exhortation to children to buy or to persuade their parents or other adults to buy advertised products for them".

Campaigns that have attracted negative comments from groups such as Which? include: Nestle's Mud and Worms breakfast cereals that featured 'Shrek'; a range of Tayto corn snacks featuring 'The Simpsons'; and McDonald's promotions featuring the characters from the Disney film 'The Incredibles'.

The new guidelines would involve a major shake-up in the way marketers target children, with a ban on "pushy" selling techniques. Some politicians are even campaigning to follow Sweden where TV ads aimed at children are banned completely.

Up until now, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has preferred the voluntary advertisers' code, however doctors and campaigners have said that this code is not affecting advertisers' behaviour.

There have already been several attempts to ban ads during children's television. In 2004, Ofcom ruled out a total ban after research showed that it had only a "modest direct impact" on the food that kids eat.

Nestle and Mars have come under fire for their advertising tactics through "educational marketing" via school reading materials that featured promotions for Cheerios and Milky Bar.

In February, PepsiCo responded to concerns over the rising levels of obesity in the US, with the promise that it would place voluntary restrictions on its ads.

Several ad agencies and food companies, including General Mills, Kellogg and Kraft Foods, hit back by saying that they want to take a harder line against ad limits.

The Food Standards Agency has recommended an end to celebrity endorsement, characters and cartoons that feature in junk food ads by the year 2006.

According to a poll entitled 'Advertising Agencies', commissioned by business information company Key Note, almost 60% of adults in the UK say it is up to parents, not advertisers, to teach children what foods are healthy.

The study found that just three of the "big six unhealthy foods" -- fizzy drinks; crisps and savoury snacks; and pre-prepared convenience foods -- represented a fifth of all advertising expenditure in the year ending June 2004.

In the same study, it was found that expenditure for chain restaurants such as McDonald's and KFC accounts for around 2% of adspend.

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