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Under pressure

Children are sitting targets when it comes to televisual advertising. Deirdre Macdonald looks at the safeguards.

Pump up that fruit with Rowntree's Fruit Pastilles," shouts the advert on the television screen. This is a far cry from the little trench-coated, school-capped boy of days of yore pleading, "Don't forget the Fruit Gums, Mum". In any case, the little boy's line would today almost certainly constitute "pester power" or parent-pressure and, for that reason, be disallowed under the Independent Television Commission's Code of Advertising Standards and Practice's section on Advertising and Children.

As Christmas approaches, television gears up its advertising for young viewers. But what rules govern the content of adverts and how much do they influence their audience?

Don't get the wrong impression commercials for the young are not all for sticky sweets or sugar-laden squashes and cereals. There are little girls crooning over a ghastly line of collectable toys called Puppy in my Pocket and the equally ghastly Fantastic Flowers which can be coloured at will, Jewel Barbie and the pop star with a mission to free the crispy bits from Toffee Crisp: there is a cast of thousands.

Teachers are probably less likely than other sections of the population to be exposed to the phenomenon of children's advertising. Spending term time locked in mortal combat with their pupils, they probably rush to do anything under the sun that is not connected with children's activities.

But teachers charged with tackling classes on personal and social development could do worse than to consider the influences to which many of their charges may most have been exposed at the weekends and in the holidays.

It is more than likely that large numbers of our children now derive their moral and ethical codes and their notional material standards as much from television commercials as from the television programmes aimed specifically at them. With more and more mothers having to work during school holidays, how many children have whiled away the time soaking in daytime television, good weather notwithstanding?

Have confidence in your skills, teachers, as The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers would have you do. Playgrounds will now be peopled by transforming pterodactyls and sabre-toothed tigers making significant hand gestures between karate kicks.

This is the series, screened by GMTV (of course) at breakfast time on holiday weekday mornings (and transferred now to Saturdays). It has been dismally but effectively designed to hook children to their television sets at the start of the day and keep them there.

Mr Motivator lent his muscle might to keep them there across the commercial divides. "Keep watching this frame "cos I'll be in Spain with Rangers Part Two, only for you next!" he would urge.

Cue the adverts, proclaiming the merits of Flintstones Sticker Packs and Albums, Nerds ("the crunchy, nobbly nibble"), Dennis, The Secret Garden and The New Adventures of Superman three great videos on sale now, Pampers Baby-Dry, New Bold, Onken Biopot Yogurt, Five Alive (to a sequence of vile images) and a really meaty meal, Pedigree Chum, could be paraded before the young captives. All very edifying.

But there are regulations governing all of these sales pitches and "Advertising and Children, Appendix I" of the ITC's Code of Advertising Standards and Practice is a reassuring and cogent document eminently sensible in its principles. It deals, very specifically, with the risks of exploitation of the natural credulity and sense of loyalty of children (defined as those under 15 years by the Commission).

It rules that no direct exhortations to purchase must be allowed in commercials aimed at children; it refuses to permit appeals to the child's sense of duty or loyalty or to a sense of inferiority. It goes so far as to say that children appearing in commercials should be "reasonably well-mannered and well behaved".

On Health and Hygiene, the guidelines are also specific. "Advertisements must not encourage children to eat frequently during the day." "Advertisements must not encourage children to consume food or drink (especially sweet, sticky foods) near bedtime" thus, commercials for Nerds, Toffee Crisps, Robinson's Squashes and Rowntrees Fruit Pastilles are acceptable in the morning slots.

These are sound and sensible principles but the problem is actually infinitely more complex because one person's common sense is another's horror; one person's idea of good taste is another person's definition of grotesqueness.

For example, many a dentist, oral hygienist (or even mere mother) might well contend that eating sticky sweets after a day of balanced meals and prior to cleaning teeth before bedtime is in practice much better than starting on sugars at daybreak.

In merchandising, toys and action figures spawned by cartoon or adventure series may not be advertised in proximity to the actual television series. Thus, the current ads for the Mighty Morphin Power Ranger action figures will not be found within any two hours of the transmissions.

Rules affecting advertisements for alcohol (and liqueur chocolates), tobacco, matches, medicines and physical safety are obviously particularly rigid. But the ITC points out that they are "television regulators, not social engineers" and that they have to be fair to advertisers as well as to viewers. Any parent knows exactly which commercials pack the punches. Only parents can control that mighty salesforce which daily enters the home.

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