consumerism human rights

Should we stop advertising to children?

Earlier this year, UNICEF released a report into child welfare, ranking 29 developed countries. Britain fared poorly, coming last for access to higher education, 27th for teenage pregnancy and 24th for youth unemployment. The report also says that current policy directions, such as slashing funding for youth services, will make this worse and increase child poverty.

It isn’t the first time that Britain has had a wake-up call from UNICEF. In 2007 a slightly different survey found that Britain had the unhappiest children in the industrialised world (see their scorecard at the bottom of this post).  The Children’s Society were challenged by this and set out to find out why, and they reported back in their landmark book A Good Childhood, by Richard Layard and Judy Dunn.

The book mentions family breakdown, a competitive ethic in education, and a lack of public trust that keeps children indoors. Behind many of those was the overarching conclusion that Britain has an aggressively individualistic society. We are actively encouraged to put ourselves first, and children grow up thinking that “to be happy you have to be wealthy and beautiful.” Television and advertising is the main culprit in communicating this message, constantly presenting role models with lifestyles far above those of the children themselves.

These consumerist messages serve business and corporations very well, as children quickly learn to prefer branded products and to pester their parents for high status goods. But it doesn’t serve our children. There is a weight of research showing that people with more materialist values are less happy. A study by the Consumer Council found that children who expressed more materialist values had lower self esteem and were more likely to argue with their parents.

One of the possible solutions that is often talked about but rarely taken seriously is a ban on television advertising to children. Advertising to children is markedly different to ads aimed at adults. Adults are able to judge what they see and hear and make an educated decision. Younger children take messages much more at face value. They do not know that they are being marketed to. All advertising to those who do not know they are being advertised to is exploitative, and exploiting the vulnerability of children is particularly noxious. So can we ban advertising to children?

The advertising industry will declare it unworkable and futile of course, but other countries have done it. Sweden and Norway both have bans on showing adverts during children’s programmes. Belgium doesn’t have adverts in  children’s programmes less than 30 minutes long, and none at all in the Flemish speaking part. Others have partial bans. Greece has a watershed on toy adverts, so parents might see them but children wouldn’t. Australia doesn’t have adverts in programmes for pre-schoolers.

Britain, Germany and a number of others have settled for guidelines to avoid misleading children in adverts. For example, things have to be shown at scale so that children don’t think they’re bigger than they really are. There are things you can’t show, like children eating unhealthily.

The issue is back in the news at the moment because a new campaign has just launched called Leave Our Kids Alone. “We believe that if companies make products for children they should aim to persuade parents, not children of four, six or eight” they say. “Our children need space to discover themselves, to learn about the world, to realise that not everything adults say can be taken at face value, to handle money, to learn the true worth of things. We believe children should be free to grow up without today’s intense commercial pressures, to become young citizens and not just little consumers.”

I don’t think the campaign is likely to gain much traction with this current government, especially with a blunt demand for an “immediate ban”. But if you have children, you don’t need to wait for the government to act to protect them from adverts. Talk about advertising and marketing and help give them perspective, and you can model a healthy skepticism of advertiser’s claims if you’re watching TV with them. If you’re not sure what to say, look up the parents’ resources on MediaSmart. They have teachers’ resources too if you want to get your school doing some media literacy.

The other thing you could consider is joining the 1% of people who watch TV but don’t watch it live. There’s no shortage of children’s programmes on iPlayer or streaming on a Lovefilm subscription or similar. You can pick up DVDs on ebay and you’ll know exactly what your children are watching. You’ll be much more in control, you won’t get any adverts at all, and you won’t have to pay a TV license either.



  1. One of the arguments against a ban of advertising in children’s TV is not that it is unworkable but that it would destroy non-BBC children’s TV in the UK. Kids TV is not very profitable. ITV and Channel 5 are advertising funded, the kids TV channels on Sky/Virgin are also primarily funded by screen advertising. A ban would threaten CITV and Milkshake, leaving the BBC as the sole provider and commissioner of children’s TV in the UK. Not only would that reduce choice but would damage the businesses that make children’s TV in this country. Already production companies have to in effect give the channels their content and only recoup their production costs via merchandising. Reducing the possible outlets to one monopoly risking driving many to the wall. Of course a monopoly may be what some of the campaigners want.

    Now if you want to kill Peppa Pig and Sooty then you’ll have my 3 year old to get through.

    It does interest me that in America the concern is not so much with advertising, but with the educational content in the kids shows. In Europe where we have people who see commerce as something dirty the focus is on advertising. If we got this ban on advertising we would the get call to ban merchandising linked to TV shows since that is ‘soft’ advertising.

    The lack of adverts on line only applies to BBC iplayer. Demand5 and ITV Player have adverts, so the issue is the same online or via broadcast. If you want to control your little darlings just put a pin on the channels you think will hurt their tiny minds. Or far better to take some responsibility and talk to your children about it. I have and I think they understand. Certainly I get less ‘I want…’ now.

    1. This is true, and a ban on advertising would need to be accompanied by alternative funding mechanisms. I don’t think a BBC monopoly on children’s TV is healthy for anyone. But those mechanisms could be found. ITV and 5 already get a small share of TV licensing money for example, so that could be increased in proportion to their programming for children. Paid services like the Disney Channel or Nickleodeon are already subscription based. Interestingly, there is a Nickleodeon Sweden, so they must manage to make it work somehow without ad revenue.

      1. Well given that you are advocating tax avoidance by only watching TV using the iplayer and not paying the TV License, if everyone followed your example there would be no money to share with other broadcasters.

        I think that watching the iplayer if you haven’t paid the license fee is morally dubious at best. Definitely a form of tax avoidance. Interestingly the only people I know who do it are deeply committed Christians who lecture me over the taxation evils of Starbucks, Amazon and Vodafone. Pot Kettle Black!

        1. What utter nonsense. If the BBC wish to host their content outside the boundaries of the licence fee, like radio or their website, that’s their prerogative. I don’t know why they do, to be honest.

          1. So your argument is that since it is not prohibited, it is perfectly fine? The definition of tax avoidance is “the legal usage of the tax regime to one’s own advantage”. The TV License fee is a poll tax on TV viewers in the UK. By watching BBC TV programmes via the internet you are avoiding that £145.50 tax. I do not see how it is not tax avoidance. Can you explain to me how it is not tax avoidance?

            Only in the matter of degrees is this particular tax avoidance different from what Google are doing with the ‘double irish’. Both are perfectly legal. Now from tax campaigners we get the idea of ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ tax avoidance. ‘Moral’ tax avoidance is what was intended when the tax rules were drawn up, ‘immoral’ is using the rules in ways not initially envisioned. Saving in an ISA is ‘moral’ tax avoidance, moving from being an employee to being a sole trader company contracter doing exactly the same job to save NI is ‘immoral’.

            The BBC did not set up the iplayer to allow free-riders to watch BBC TV programmes and not have to pay the License fee. It is not illegal because when the License fee was established the iplayer did not exist. So it is clear to me that it would come under the category of ‘immoral’ tax avoidance.

            Now I don’t agree with the moral/immoral tax avoidance split. I have no problem with what Google are doing. I don’t write posts denouncing them. Thus I avoid hypocrisy. Perhaps you can enlighten me as to how you do the same?

  2. BBC News in the morning was part of my morning routine as a new mum …………. in an end segment a preview of an evening programme with Desmond Tutus reconciliation talks in Northern Ireland – a meeting between a mother who’s son was killed in the Omagh bombing and one of the bombers ………… my son was about 2 years old and he stopped in his tracks mesmerised by what was on the television ………. I was shocked.
    Never having visited MacDonalds he would say the name when he say the big ‘M’, he would sing the lyrics of a radio ad ……………..
    We only ever had BBC or dvds until he moved into Year 1 at school – peer pressure.
    I consider myself a reasonably conscious parent – and – whilst I LOVE Peppa Pig ……….. I’m really clear …….. even with trying to be a responsible parent – marketing to kids is too impactful.

    1. I’ve often heard this, that it really kicks in once kids get to school. That’s why talking to your children only gets you so far. Generally I’m wary of banning things outright as a solution, but it’s worth considering here because it’s about creating a culture of selfish acquisition. It’s bigger than families and parental responsibility.

  3. Seriously Devonchap, you want to pursue this? I presumed you were being facetious, but apparently not. By your logic, people who ride bikes are just avoiding paying road tax.

    Iplayer is a free service, like BBC radio. I do not need to pay and I personally checked this with the TV licensing people. If you want to pay for free services out of some sense of moral superiority, carry on. You can start by sending me a cheque for reading the blog.

    1. Sure, watcing iplayer without a TV license it perfectly legal. Did I say it wasn’t? No. Did I say there was a problem with do so? No I did not. I simply pointed out that there are those who castigate other people and companies for pursuing perfectly legal tax avoidance strategies. You are one of those yet you have no problem with this particular tax avoidance strategy.

      Your basic case is, it isn’t illegal so I can do it. I agree, but that is Google’s argument and you don’t buy that. How is this different?

      (Also there is no such thing as road tax, hasn’t been since 1937, so easy to avoid).

      1. The difference is between leaving a library without paying for a book, and leaving a bookshop without paying for it.

        Google are the latter, wanting all the benefits of Britain’s infrastructure, schools, legal system, etc, without wanting to pay for any of it. That means that you and I have to pay a bigger share towards those things instead. If you’re okay with that, more fool you, because you’re losing out too.

        So no, my argument is not that it’s not illegal, and therefore okay. It’s not a matter of law. It’s a matter of paid services vs free services. Live television is a paid service, catch-up TV is not, whether that’s BBC or 4OD or whoever. There’s no comparison to corporate tax evasion whatsoever, and I think you’re well aware of it.

        But this is a post about advertising to children, and controlling what they can and can’t see on television. It has nothing to do with tax or Google or even the licence fee, so I don’t know what’s set you off on your little pro-corporate crusade here. It is, to be quite honest, the dumbest line of commenting I’ve had on the blog in some time.

        1. Watching BBC TV programmes without paying for them is exactly the same. I repeat, it is not intended for free-riders. It is intended for the vast majority of people in the UK who already pay the license fee, hence why foreign ip addresses are blocked. Libraries are intended to have free book lending, bookshops are not, the iplayer is not intended for non license payers.

          The license fee pays for the programmes, you don’t pay it you are free-riding, just as you say Google are.

          Basically your view is that it is okay because you do it. You won’t see the comparison because it would mean you are on the wrong side of a moral line you have drawn.

          This does link into banning advertising for kids TV. If more people follow your free-riding approach then there will not be the money to spend on advertising free kids TV, so banning adverts would just cut the number and quality of programmes available.

          1. Not so. For whatever reason, iPlayer, 4OD and ITV Player have all set up as free services outside the remit of the licence fee. They didn’t have to do it that way, but they’ve all chosen that model.

            I had a TV licence last year. I got one for the football. I didn’t really watch anything else – there was nothing I wanted to see. After the football and Wimbledon, we cancelled it again. We’re just not big TV watchers. I enjoy films and I play games, and prefer to spend my money on those. My choice not to have a TV licence is nothing to do with cost, so you really don’t know what you’re talking about. But I suspect you’re only doing it to wind me up anyway, and that’s trolling as far as I’m concerned.

            If you’ve got a comment about advertising to children, carry on. Otherwise, go and find something else to do.

            1. 4OD and ITV player are advertising funded (you have to sit through an advert to see the programme) and get no license fee. Therefore they are on a par with YouTube and irrelevant to my argument. Banning advertising on kids TV would not effect YouTube which is where the viewers would go. More money for tax compliant Google.

              Quite how the BBC would have stopped non-license fee payers using the iplayer without a change in the law is hard to see to you can hardly say they have chosen it. The laws that cover the license fee are much older than the iplayer. The only alternative would be to exclude it from the license fee funded part of the BBC and show adverts. Bit of a backwards step for you.

              Perhaps we should follow the French who to address this are planning extending the license fee to all computers.

  4. I don’t see why it would be a problem to say iPlayer was for license payers only. They may still opt for that. And the TV licence is a TV licence, not a BBC subscription, so it makes no odds that there’s advertising on their online services networks.

    1. Trouble is, that requires primary legislation and the BBC doesn’t want the license fee opened up. It may come up at the next charter renewal. Of course if you say only license fee payers are allowed to use iplayer, unless you issue smart cards or other expensive/inconvenient systems how do you enforce it? It is just moved from tax avoidance to tax evasion with now controls.

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