"From a young age children must have the ability to think critically about what they are viewing. In relation to advertising, we ought to encourage the development of specific 'skills', such as an awareness of and ability to assess the commercial messages within programmes, and develop, in young children, a critical approach to advertising."
So said Tessa Jowell, secretary of state for Culture, Media and Sport, last week at the launch of Media Smart, a programme with the goal of teaching children how to interpret and understand advertising. Based on a longstanding Canadian initiative, Media Smart has the support of leading children's broadcasters and advertisers including Cadbury Trebor Bassett, Hasbro, Kellogg, Masterfoods, Mattel and Procter & Gamble.
But the roll-call of those children's advertisers not involved is just as prestigious: McDonald's, Walkers, Lego, Coca-Cola, Nestle, Britvic, to name but six major players. Will so many noticeable absentees undermine the programme?
Certainly not, maintains Ian Twinn, Incorporated Society of British Advertisers director of public affairs (ISBA). "We've concentrated on getting it going with the support we've got, which is adequate. But I've got every expectation that as this develops other people will join us."
Coca-Cola, which has had a longstanding involvement with the Concerned Children's Advertisers (CCA) organisation in Canada, admits it had a meeting about Media Smart two weeks ago and is considering whether to join. McDonald's, meanwhile, says it cannot rule out "future involvement" but has not as yet received sufficient information on which to base a decision.
"I'm getting round and talking to a lot of people," says Media Smart chairman Paul Jackson. "No one has said 'no'. We're asking people to gestate, cogitate and find the budgets."
The more advertisers that come aboard, the less each will have to stump up toward running costs. But while there is elasticity in the costs, it is thought that each Media Smart supporter will be paying between £25,000 and 30,000 each.
The very public backing given to Media Smart by the government is an enormous fillip for those behind the scheme, as advertising to children remains a political hot potato. The prospect of a European ban on advertising to young children continues to be discussed in EU circles and remains an outside possibility.
Domestically, there has been some dissent in Labour party ranks against the government's stance in support of self-regulation. Earlier this year, Labour MP Debra Shipley tabled an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons calling for a ban on TV ads aimed at pre-school children. It was backed by 130 MPs, but failed to change government policy. Shipley, however, continues to champion her cause vocally and asserts that advertising to young children is "indefensible". There is evidence to suggest many members of the public share her disquiet.
A recent Chartered Institute of Marketing survey into consumer attitudes found that 55% of adults felt advertising and targeting children should be restricted. However, only 20% thought it should be banned completely (see chart). Ads were also considered by consumers to be a greater influence on kids' product desires than friends, family or school.
Those implacably opposed to the notion of advertising to children will doubtless condemn Media Smart as a shameless device for the perpetuation of self-regulation and the preservation of the status quo. Twinn says: "We're not doing it to try to impress government. It's not part of a lobbying campaign. The support of the government in the UK for self-regulation of advertising is very strong. It's held up as working extremely well."
Indeed at the Media Smart launch, Jowell made a point of citing the initiative as an example of an industry taking responsibility for its actions. It is only right, she elaborated, that children come to understand how and why the persuaders persuade.
Some observers argue that Media Smart does not go far enough. Steve Hilton, partner of corporate social leadership company Good Business, says: "My instinctive reaction is it feels like a corporate social responsibility afterthought rather than taking a leadership position."
Judging the success or otherwise of Media Smart will have to wait until it is clear how sustained the activity is and whether it has a measurable impact on the way children view advertising. The CCA on which it is loosely based, has been in existence for 12 years and has earned plaudits for addressing delicate issues such as substance abuse and child abuse as well as media literacy.
Media Smart is not starting out with such wide-ranging ambitions, but its UK advertising agency Burkitt DDB has turned to the CCA for inspiration, adapting a commercial featuring a 'house hippo' from the Canadian campaign.
The ad shows the mini mammal exploring a house, with a voiceover explaining that not everything you see on TV is real. 'Asking questions and thinking about what you see on TV is being Media Smart', concludes the voiceover.
The hippo commercial will run in children's programming from January, with some airtime donated free by supporting broadcasters: BSkyB, GMTV, Nickelodeon and Turner Broadcasting.
In addition to the TV ads, Media Smart will create a web site containing information for parents, teachers and children. Teaching resources are being developed so that kids can learn about media and advertising in class, as part of the national curriculum. This is very much in line with the government's media literacy goals.
Research has shown that children as young as two are brand aware. So clearly by the time they reach school age, children will already have strong views about the brands and products they prefer. Quite how they have arrived at these preferences makes for an interesting point of debate - and one that children as young as six will be able to participate in.
Answering the sceptics
The schools material has been developed with input from Media Smart's charity partner, the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations.
This bestows a degree of credibility and endorsement on the initiative and acts as a guarantee that commercial considerations will not impinge on an educational exercise.
"If we sense it's getting into a more commercial game, our sanction is that we would no longer be the charity partner," says NCPTA chairman of the trustees Peter Tomkins. "I'm sure they'd think very hard about losing that imprimatur."
However, Tomkins is quick to reassure sceptics that "there's no hidden agenda," behind Media Smart. NCPTA is involved, he says, because it sees media literacy as an important issue for children.
"We don't want children as they grow up not to understand what ads are about," says ISBA's Twinn. "No one is ashamed of advertising. It's an essential part of the economic system we live in and most people support it."
"Anything that helps promote an industry as being responsible and educating and informing people, will be to the benefit of that industry," adds Kellogg's European director, corporate communications, Aileen Thompson.
With airtime being given away free, much of the expenditure is being channelled into the school packs. As the Canadian model was studied more closely it became apparent that the schools material was "the really good thing" says Jackson.
Media Smart will be inviting feedback from teachers in July 2003 and will also be working with Fox Kids Research to benchmark performance using interviews with a panel of children. Once it is established in the UK, there are plans to roll Media Smart out across Europe - which might help minimise the threat of future EU legislation addressing advertising to children.
"All the evidence suggests that by teaching media literacy at whatever age you develop better critical faculties that are really useful life skills," says Jackson. "If it works it will be good for the advertising business and good for the kids. No one will be worse off."
Jowell agrees, claiming she wants young people to grow up "challenging everything" and for them to develop the ability to "deconstruct the power of what is often sensational imagery".