It's getting close to Christmas. The season when the nation stuffs its face, piles in to the high streets in a gift-hunting frenzy, stockpiles Alka Seltzer and regrets whatever faux pas it might have committed the night before at the office knees-up. Oh, and it blames the advertising industry for exposing its children to a barrage of greed-inducing ad campaigns.
As marketers put up their defences against attacks on its advertising to kids - be it for toys, food, games or clothing - arguments on both sides of the debate are hotting up. First, a fortnight ago, Chancellor Gordon Brown attacked advertisers that target children at Christmas, claiming it was unfair to kids from deprived backgrounds because their families couldn't afford the products pushed at them.
This was followed by a study from the Chartered Institute of Marketing, revealing that people feel ads have more influence over children than do parents or teachers, and that there should be stricter UK laws on advertising to kids.
Then last week an international debate, held by the Advertising Association in London, claimed Sweden's desire to ban ads to children across Europe would prove futile, and that its existing domestic ban failed to protect children from advertising because they could still access satellite channels that don't fall under Swedish laws.
And underlying all this is the work of the government's Food Standards Agency, set up earlier this year, which is devising an action plan to create new codes for food advertising aimed at children.
One of issues at the core of the debate is whether children, specifically under the age of 12, are able to fully comprehend the commercial nature of advertising and differentiate between it and programming.
In November 1999 the Swedish minister of culture, Marita Ulvskog, raised the question of TV advertising to children at the European Union's Council of Ministers. She did not call specifically for a ban, but since then the issue has been highly contentious.
The ad industry has been forced to debate and defend children's ads, with the possibility of increased regulations, if not a ban, hanging overhead.
Fears have increased because Sweden will take over as chair of the EU in the first half of 2001.
In response to such threats, the UK Advertising Association launched a programme of activity in 1999, labelled The Children's Programme, to address the issue of advertising to children. Last week it held a conference, 'With the Eyes of a Child', which a number of academics and researchers attended.
The most significant speech came from Dr Erling Bjurstrom, associate professor of the National Institute for Working Life in Sweden, whose research is used by the Swedish government as the basis for its ban.
Bjurstrom explained that his studies had been misinterpreted, and the Swedish government had wrongly taken it to mean that all children under 12 were incapable of understanding the nature of advertising. In reality, he had concluded that some children under 12 might not understand it, which didn't mean that they couldn't differentiate between ads and programmes.
He also highlighted that some older people were incapable of understanding ads.
He added that even beyond this weakness in the law, Swedish children were not wholly protected, as they could access satellite channel TV3 which is based outside Sweden, and therefore not subject to its laws.
On top of that, Bjurstrom highlighted that we live in a society whose commercial aspects stretch further than advertising, into family activities such as giving gifts.
His conclusion then was that it was futile to try to extend the Swedish ban into other European countries as it was already a failure in its own.
This view is backed by many of Britain's advertisers and industry bodies.
Rupert Howell, president of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and chairman of ad agency HHCL & Partners, endorses the view that a ban in the UK is unlikely.
He says: 'Advertising is an easy target for this issue, but it is lazy gesture politics and people are starting to see that. None of the bans will happen, because people are wising up to how this is part of the perpetual whinge against the media and advertising.'
Lionel Stanbrook, director of the Food Advertising Unit, which provides information and research on food advertising issues, agrees.
He says: 'I challenge the self-appointed consumer groups to tell me where there is evidence to support a ban on advertising for children.'
However, not all in the industry are so optimistic. Iain Twinn, director of public affairs at ISBA, says: 'If a government body like the Food Standards Agency wants to ban food ads without any real evidence, then we're in a very serious situation. There are people out there with very closed minds, and there is more threat of a ban on advertising to children now than there was a year ago.'
While one side argues that it is morally wrong to advertise to children who cannot understand the concept of the hard sell, the other has conducted research and formed opinions to the opposite effect. Advertising, the research says, is understood by younger children, and can also help them develop discernment and knowledge, which they need to cope in an increasingly commercial world.
Andrew Marsden, marketing director of Britvic, which produces a raft of kids' brands including Juice Up, says: 'Evidence suggests that children are more literate about commercial messages and brands than their parents would like them to be. As a result they are much more savvy, discriminating and cynical about advertising.'
Sarah Mooney, corporate communications manager for toy giant Hasbro, says that advertising is an important part of developing children's ability to make choices and to analyse information: 'Banning ads would deprive children of the important development area of choice and value, and could cause problems later on. You can't keep children in a vacuum, you just have to learn how to say no to them.'
At the AA's conference, Dr Brian Young, a professor at the University of Exeter, revealed how his studies had found that children under 12 did have a full awareness of the commercial nature of advertising. He had found that five- to seven-year-olds saw advertising as an information provider and promoter of brands, and that three-quarters of eight-year-olds fully understood its persuasive nature and commercial process.
Els de Bens, professor at the University of Dortmund in Germany, says: 'Research shows that from six to eight, children understand the objective of the ad spot - selling.'
UK advertisers point out that they already face heavy regulations from the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre and the Independent Television Commission on children's advertising, and in three years there have only been ten complaints - one upheld - to the ITC about an ad targeting kids.
Advertisers also argue that there is a serious consequence of banning children's ads. According to the IPA, in Sweden toys are 36% more expensive, like for like, than in the UK because no ads means no competition.
The IPA's Howell says: 'It shows total economic ignorance to say advertising is unfair to families. The situation in Sweden shows that when you restrict and ban advertising, the prices go up.'
Marketers and agencies, from the societal realities and research evidence, claim that it would be wrong to cut children off from the commercial messages that they will be unable to escape at a later age.
A further reality is that with access to technologies such as the internet, children cannot be shielded from marketing messages, or banner ads - so why should they be wrapped in cotton wool when it comes to TV? As Marsden says: 'It is much too easy and silly to believe that there's a conspiracy to 'get at' children. Parents should spend less time worrying about advertising, and more on issues like drugs.'
WHAT BRITAIN THINKS ABOUT ADS FOR KIDS
Do you think that advertising aimed at children should be banned?
Banned completely 17%
There''s no problem 19%
Don''t know 1%
Which one of these do you think is the most important factor in
influencing children''s desires?
Don''t know 3%
Do you think that the UK''s laws on advertising to children should be
Don''t know 4%
What do you think about the amount of advertising that children see?
They see too much 80%
They see the right amount 16%
They see too little 1%
Chartered Institute of Marketing survey (966 adults, aged 15+)