Much Ado About Ads

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Regulations governing advertising to children vary widely around the globe.

While most people agree certain basic principals should regulate advertising to children (i.e., it should not contain sex, violence, or discriminatory behavior), there are some surprising anomalies around the world. From Belgium to Venezuela and Australia to South Africa, the regulations are literally all over the map as some countries favor self-regulation, while others have more stringent systems in place.

In Europe, for example, the overall legislative framework is set out in Television Without Frontiers, the E.U.'s directive on television regulation within the Union. The revised version of TVWF bans "programs that might seriously impair the development of minors," but it does allow the transmission of unencrypted programming that "might be harmful to minors provided they are preceded by an acoustic warning or made clearly identifiable throughout their duration by means of a visual symbol." However, it does prohibit product placement in programming aimed at children, as well as news and documentaries.

While generally welcoming the changes to the directive, consumer organization BECU (Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs) raised several concerns regarding the provisions as they apply to minors. BECU would like to see the introduction of what it describes as "a realistic definition of children's programming based on what children actually watch," pointing out, "in the UK, for instance, there is data to suggest that children spend 71 percent of their viewing time outside airtime designated as 'children's.'" It also fingers Club RTL in Belgium as "taking advantage of this lack of a legal definition of what constitutes a children's program to run ads between cartoons." RTL does this by claiming that each cartoon is itself a "children's program," and, therefore, by not interrupting the "program," it is abiding by the regulations as they currently exist.

Additionally, in a suggestion unlikely to find favor with advertisers, BECU also calls for "severe restrictions on the use of children, fictional or real celebrities, and cartoons in advertising." Finally, BECU also adamantly opposes any idea of self-regulation, insisting in its response to Television Without Frontiers that "self-regulation is not an instrument of public policy and cannot be used to enforce a directive."

It is perhaps not surprising that the European Advertising Standards Alliance and the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) are both in favor of self-regulation. The ICC has drawn up an International Code of Advertising Practice, which it believes will offer harmonization and cultural flexibility across national boundaries in a way national legislation cannot. The provisions of the code as they apply to advertising aimed at children reflect values and concerns found in pretty much all legislation and codes of practices in the developed world. It specifically prohibits exploitation of the inexperience and/or credulity of children, statements or visual presentations that could have the effect of harming children, or of leading them into unsafe situations or activities seriously threatening to their health or security, such as consorting with strangers. It also prohibits the application of words such as "only" to prices, to indicate to a child that this is a particularly cheap price. Finally, it forbids direct appeals to children to persuade their parents or other adults to buy advertised products for them.

The E.U. might like to think it is operating the regulation of "television without frontiers," but, as the ICC suggests, in reality there are quite a few local variations between member states. For example, Sweden bans all advertising aimed at kids under age 12. However, because the E.U. directive states that a television service falls under the jurisdiction of the country from which the signal is transmitted—and not the one in which it is received—there are three national Swedish services broadcast from the UK to which this prohibition does not apply.

In neighboring Denmark, it is permissible to advertise alcoholic beverages to children provided that the beverage concerned does not exceed 2.8 percent in strength, it is not placed in a program directly aimed at children, and no children or youths are shown drinking it. Italy, on the other hand, bans any appearance in any advertisement by anyone age 14 or under, and is considering introducing a total prohibition on advertising in all children's programming. Belgium already has such a ban, additionally prohibiting the transmission of advertising aimed at children for five minutes on either side of a kids' program. Greece, meanwhile, bans the advertising of toys between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. And France, echoing BECU's earlier concern over the marketing of nutritionally poor foods, recently introduced a law limiting the amount of television advertising for food aimed at children, while also requiring such foods to carry warnings that they are "incompatible with the rules of nutritional health."

But there are broad grounds of agreement. Article 16 of TVWF stipulates that "television advertising should not contain messages or images that could morally or physically damage minors," and this prohibition is fairly universal in national legislation, too.

This concern also is a feature of South African legislation on advertising to children, which stipulates, "advertisements addressed to or likely to influence children should not contain any statement or visual presentation that might result in harming them mentally, morally, physically, or emotionally." The regulations go on to give, and ban, specific examples of emotional harm that would not be permitted. "Instances where this principal may apply are, inter alia," it states, "for a commercial product or service that contains any appeal to children, that suggests in any way that unless the children themselves buy, or encourage other people to buy, the product or service, they will be failing in some duty, or lacking in loyalty toward some person or organization, whether that person or organization is the one making the appeal or not. Or which leads children to believe that if they do not own the product advertised they will be inferior in some way to other children or that they are liable to be held in contempt or ridiculed for not owning it."

The Australian Association of National Advertisers shares the South African concern about physical safety, stating in its code for advertising to children (which it defines as those under age 14) that "advertisements to children:

(a) must not portray images or events that depict unsafe uses of a product, or unsafe situations that may encourage children to engage in dangerous activities; and

(b) must not advertise products that have been officially declared unsafe or dangerous by an authorized Australian government authority."

The Australian code also shows concern for parents' self-esteem, making it clear that "advertisements to children must not state or imply that persons who buy an advertised product are more generous than those who do not."

The code does share the prevalent European concern over food and lifestyle. Although allowing advertisements for food and beverages to be directed at children, the code states that these advertisements "should not encourage or promote an inactive lifestyle combined with unhealthy eating or drinking habits, and must not contain any misleading or incorrect information about the nutritional value of that product."

In many South American countries, the laws on children's advertising are much less regulated, although Venezuela divides its advertising regulation into three time categories, which probably reflect a lifestyle very different from that of Europe and North America. The first of these is designated as the "All Users Time" and is the period from 7 a.m. through 7 p.m. During these 12 hours broadcasters can transmit shows, programs, advertising, and promotions that can be seen by children and youths without parental guidance. Next is the "Supervised Time," during which broadcasters may transmit programming that requires parental guidance. "Supervised Time" is defined as 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. through 11 p.m. The remaining hours, from 11 p.m. through 5 a.m., are designated as "Adult Time," and broadcasters are permitted to transmit programming and advertising aimed at those ages 18 and older.

Mexico rates programming as being in one of five categories:

A: These programs are suitable for all users and can be shown at any time.

B: These are suitable for adolescents and adults and may be shown after 8 p.m.

B-15: These are deemed only suitable for adolescents older than 15 and may be shown from 9 p.m. onward.

C: Adult programming suitable for transmission after 10 p.m.

D: Adult programming only suitable for transmission between midnight and 5 a.m.

There is no restriction on the amount of children's advertising, and the only prohibited products are tobacco and alcohol.

Peru, on the other hand, largely has adopted the regulations as they exist in the U.S., and, unlike Venezuela, has no restrictions on the timing or the amount of advertising that can be shown aimed at children. There are restrictions on "overselling" products and, in particular, making claims for toys that are unsubstantiated, such as showing a doll whose limbs cannot move as walking. But the enforcement of the regulations is overseen by a committee made up of representatives of the commercial channels, and, unsurprisingly, many feel it does little to enforce such regulations as do exist.

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