Pester Power

Father Christmas has become an enemy of the people, as advertisers exploit parents for all they’re worth

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 4th December 1998.

At this time of year I’m always relieved I don’t have children. The parents I see wandering the shopping malls in the hope of purchasing some peace and quiet have the faces of the condemned. They know they can buy respite but not satisfaction, for the staggering turnover of fads in Britain, driven by the most predatory children’s advertising in Europe, means that Christmas has become a trade in disappointment.

British children are exposed to more adverts than any others in the EU – an average of 17 per hour on children’s TV. Last year, advertisers spent pounds150 million selling toys and games – six times more than in 1992. And this is only the beginning. Last week, the big advertising agency McCann-Erickson launched a new children’s division, doubtless in order to compete with Saatchi and Saatchi, who launched theirs at the beginning of the year.

Billboards are appearing in school corridors and playgrounds. Company logos are turning up on uniforms. Excite Inc will provide free email accounts for all schoolchildren, recouping its costs through on-screen advertising. While the government seems to believe it has a duty to interfere in every other area of school life, when it comes to advertising, it refuses to intervene. Schools and their governors are left to interpret the National Consumer Council guidelines and negotiate with the most determined salespeople in Britain, without help or guidance from the Department for Education.

Pitted against five marketing executives in a radio discussion last week, I was told that advertising helps parents, because it encourages children to become more discerning consumers. Children, they informed me, know how much money their parents have and won’t make inordinate demands. If parents aren’t tough enough to stand up to them, they must be pretty pathetic.

I don’t suppose it’s too hard to stand up to your children, if you’re an advertising executive, as the money you make from exploiting other people’s kids means that you don’t often have to say no to your own. But for the impoverished parents I know, Christmas means conflict, as their children beg, scream and sulk for the overpriced trash dangled beyond their reach 17 times an hour. The parents know that Christmas will be miserable, because instead of furbies and All Saints dolls, their children will have to make do with last year’s crazes. They know that their children will be made to feel like second-class citizens when they arrive in the playground on the first day of the spring term, still wearing the old football strip.

Children’s advertising is the marketing of insecurity, a mission to generate self-consciousness among the only group of people who have, hitherto, been free from it. A recent ad by Kellogg’s, which attracted a rare condemnation from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), claimed that eating its cereal could make children less susceptible to bullying, as it could help them to lose weight. Parents complained that fat children, identified by the advert as a target, are now more likely to be bullied.

The Independent Television Commission’s code on advertising to children could scarcely be clearer. “No method of advertising,” it insists, “may be employed which takes advantage of the natural credulity and sense of loyalty of children”. “Advertisements must not exhort children to purchase” or “ask their parents or others to make enquiries or purchases”. “No advertisement may lead children to believe that if they do not have or use the product or service advertised they will be inferior … or liable to contempt or ridicule”. The rules, in other words, are a precise description of the scope and purpose of children’s advertising. Were they applied, it’s hard to see how any advert would slip through the net. But both the ITC and the ASA are weakly constituted and reluctant to use their limited powers. Both authorities, for example, ban the encouragement of “pester power”, but, according to Marketing Week, this bane of all parents, much of it driven by advertising, is worth pounds8.4 billion a year in Britain. Whenever anyone calls for more controls, however, government ministers rush to reassure the industry that “self-regulation” is the best way forward.

Civilised countries have no truck with such nonsense. Sweden, Norway, Belgium and Austria all ban advertising during children’s television programmes. When the Swedes assume the EU presidency in 2001, they will attempt to defend harrassed parents throughout the Union, by introducing new restrictions on children’s advertising. The Advertisers’ Association is already lobbying to stop them. Thanks to its members, Father Christmas has become an enemy of the people.