Brands, Corporate Responsibility and Advertising to Children
Paul Jackson of Media Smart looks at Brands and Corporate Social Responsibility in relation to advertising to children, with a view to increasing media literacy.
The ‘Responsibility’ Era
Business leaders are operating in a new business environment – one driven by responsibility and concern for social impact and stakeholder groups. This environment demands that companies embrace new business strategies like the 'triple bottom line' which seek to create economic, social and environmental value for shareholders.
Companies embracing the triple bottom line approach have recognised that, although they may act in accordance with science, modern consumers vote with their wallets when they do not see good corporate citizenship based on corporate social responsibility.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) involves business looking at how to improve their social, environmental and local economic impact, their influence in society, social cohesion and fair trade. CSR is an organisation’s responsibility to behave, through all its business practices, in a way that has a positive impact on all stakeholders.
Brands and CSR
Increasingly, CSR is being promoted by business increasingly as a response to the anti-corporate, anti-globalisation agenda of activists world-wide. The visibility of this group was most clearly illustrated by the protests in Seattle over the new WTO round. These activists reject brands and global multinationals, and seek to promote increased regulation of all areas of corporate activity. Restrictions on advertising are a particularly popular target.
The uproar over the ‘No Logo’ and globalisation debates has made it easy for some politicians to lose sight of the reason why brands exist. Brands were founded in response to consumers’ desire for predictability and, above all, protection. Brands are ‘trustmarks’ that embody for consumers a commitment to quality, value for money and reliability and allow consumers to differentiate and identify the products that best suit their needs. Today’s brands – with values and propositions - are certainly more complex than they were originally, but their core purpose remains the same.
Advertising to children
Calls for a responsible approach to business have been particularly loud in the area of marketing to children. In addition to being a highly emotive issue for parents and politicians, advertising to children is increasingly linked to the wider anti-capitalist movement against global brands and the anti-advertising backlash.
In Europe the subject of advertising and promotions to children is one that causes much debate. The arguments against include that it breeds new generations of ‘must have’ consumers and that in some cases it has a negative impact on children’s health and welfare. The arguments in favour are based on the need to encourage children – who are surrounded by advertising and brands – to be more critical of what they see and hear and thereby to make more informed choices.
The debate about advertising to children now has two distinct strands. Firstly the so-called ‘moral debate’ which is focused on the ethics of advertising to children, in particular whether this causes increased materialism, commercialism and ‘pester power’. Secondly the role of advertising in the health debate which increasingly attempts to link food advertising with obesity and challenges the advertising of snack foods and fast food brands.
The political environment in which advertising to children is debated has changed within the last two years. Whereas previously attention was focused on the ethical debate and initiatives by the Swedish EU Presidency to ban advertising to children at EU level, today the focus has moved to the specific area of food advertising. Most recently, at the Danish Presidency conference on obesity in September 2002, the International Obesity Taskforce (IOTF) stated that
The EU’s implementation of a tobacco advertising ban should now be followed by similar EU based restrictions on the targeting of the young, including pre-school children, to consume inappropriate foods and drinks.
Today there are proposals for global and regional restrictions on the advertising of certain food products. The Swedes meanwhile are continuing to try to build consensus on their position with the EU accession countries.
Responsible Advertising and Children programme
The Responsible Advertising and Children programme recognises that consumers are looking at more than a company’s products. Modern consumers are concerned about the environment, labour used to produce goods and the treatment of communities in which companies are based – to name a few. RAC believes that, for all activity, companies must acknowledge the new demands placed on them by consumers and must demonstrate proactively that they are responsible. RAC is committed to promoting industry responsibility in two specific ways: facilitating best practice of advertising self-regulation and promoting media literacy for primary school children across Europe.
Self-regulation of advertising to children
Advertising is an extremely creative industry, with persuasive intent, which often pushes the barriers of social norms. It is also one of the most heavily regulated industries in existence today. In the UK alone there are more than 200 laws governing advertising – and this comprehensive regulation is complemented by rigorous self-regulation.
Self-regulation is something that the advertising business holds dear. Funded by industry but independently operated, self-regulation guarantees effective control because it is supported by all parts of the industry – the advertisers, the advertising agencies and the media. The principles of self-regulation are based on four tenets: awareness and resources, transparency and openness, ‘teeth’ and free access. These tenets demand that consumers are freely and easily able to make complaints and that these complaints are dealt with quickly and impartially and that any adjudications are made public as soon as possible.
In the UK the self-regulatory system is administered by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). In 2000 there were 30 million press advertisements in the UK. That year the ASA received just over 12,000 complaints. Of these, 50 related to children of which only six were upheld.
The ASA provides a free service to consumers by facilitating a direct dialogue between industry and the consumer. It is the most comprehensive self-regulatory system in Europe today and is deemed by most to be efficient in its handling of complaints and procedures. The government’s new regulatory body, OFCOM, encourages self-regulation but has made it clear that it will come down hard if the industry fails to deliver for the public good.
Media literacy has been recognised by international organisations and national governments as a key platform through which citizenship and critical viewing skills are developed. Media literacy in many countries plays an important role in helping children negotiate complex media environments.
Media literacy has global support. As well as the Council of Europe, UNESCO and the European Commission are both actively involved in developing a media literate society. In June 2003 the European Commission will publish its first report looking at the status of media literacy in Europe. In the UK the government has tasked its new regulatory body, OFCOM, with helping people develop a better understanding of the different types of media services and participating in developing media literacy through course materials for use in formal education.
Media Smart was launched in November 2002 with public support from Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who welcomed the initiative as a means of helping children deconstruct and understand the advertising that is aimed at them in order that they might make more informed choices, both as consumers and as citizens. Media Smart is entirely funded by the advertising business and is supported by the UK government and National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations.
Media Smart includes an in-school teaching resource, a TV infomercial and an interactive website – with dedicated sections for children, parents, teachers and academics (www.mediasmart.org.uk). Be Adwise, the teaching resource material, was introduced to primary schools in the UK in February 2003. The schools pack – which was developed in conjunction with teachers and which meets National Curriculum requirements in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland for English, Maths, PHSE and Citizenship – includes an in-school video, teachers’ notes, classroom activity sheets and poster.
We are living in the Responsibility Era and must ensure that our brand values and corporate strategies relating to advertising to children reflect new consumer demands. The RAC programme is committed to promoting best practice and responsibility in Europe, through promoting self-regulation and media literacy.
Information on how to get involved with the RAC or Media Smart is available from Paul Jackson at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in British Brands, the publication of the British Brands Group, issue 17. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or Tel: 07020 934250.
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