Which TV adverts cause the most problems in your home?

As part of the Mothers’ Union Bye Buy Childhood Campaign, I’m starting to prepare an evening discussion meeting about the effect of (among other things) adverts on our children.

The impact report prepared by Mothers’ Union at the launch of this campaign, notes that £350 million is spent in the UK on advertising to children each year. Product placement, pester power and peer to peer sales all encourage children to spend, or make their parents and relatives spend. What I want to find out is which adverts are causing parents (and grandparents) the most trouble and why. Then I can select some examples to use as discussion points during our evening. So can you help me please?

  • What is it that your children see on TV, but you don’t think is appropriate, or you can’t afford? What about Grand Theft Auto… or is there something you think is worse?
  • What TV adverts for goods only adults can buy and use, inappropriately target children as the means of advertising them? The Vauxhall Zafira ‘Daddy Cool’ advert is the one that springs to my mind
  • Are then any adverts you think specifically sexualise children?

If you live in NE Hants, NW Surrey or the south of Berkshire, and you fancy coming along, you’d be most welcome. All the details are here: http://www.muwinchester.org.uk/2010/11/04/who’s-buying-our-children’s-childhood/



  1. Can I plea for an evidence-based approach?

    Speculation of the “but a small child might like the music and pester Daddy to buy the car” is a) implausible, b) trivial, c) proportionately solved by buying the tune on iTunes and playing it on loop in the car with the kid until the latter is sick of it.

    Don’t turn into Mary Whitehouse, Rac.


    • It isn’t that simple, Alec. Adverts work in many different ways and at many different levels. Take the example of adverts for alcoholic products. You might think, they’re not for kids, or kids aren’t interested in those sorts of adverts. But according to David Messer, Professor of Child Development and Learning in the Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology:

      “…alcohol adverts are popular with both children and adults, even though the UK advertising regulations (BCAP, 2004) stipulate that alcohol adverts should not appeal to young people. Young children do not fully understand the purpose of adverts, even so, quite a few say they would like to try one of these products. So enjoying watching an advert might have more of an effect on you and on children than you think. Or do you still think the adverts are innocent entertainment?”


      • Hi Trevor,

        You appear to be proposing an intractable issue – I’m not aware of any way to make advertising that is appealing to adults which is not appealing to children, because in many primal ways grownups are exactly like oversize children so there is bound to be overlap – this is for instance the appeal of TopGear.

        From the 1980s I remember Chas&Dave advertising beer with mockney singsongs, the Hofmeister bear in the stupid yellow jacket, and Babycham with some kind of Bambi bouncing around… but the reasons I drank too much when I got to university were nothing to do with advertising.

        Up to the point where I got to university I was under the wings of my parents, and they looked after me, and though perhaps I managed to cadge a couple of pints (cf: Prince Charles in his youth, drinking a cherry brandy in a pub while underage) my drinking was limited to moderate introductory amounts of wine and cider with sunday lunch, and a slug of vile brandy when I had toothache.

        The advertising hasn’t done me any harm, nor the booze, and I see no evidence to suggest anything biological has changed for the worse in how the human being reacts to either booze or alcohol since 1986 when I became 18.

        So what I want – nay, demand – is clear thinking. Any number of psych reports saying “If you let children watch enough adverts they might find some of them amusing” don’t really link up with the proposition that there is some social meltdown underway.

        There’s no cause-and-effect, just merely implication.

        Rachel herself has one of the best-adjusted children I know, and can’t imagine him getting tanked until he gets to college – so whither the problem? Perhaps the MU should be trying to address bad parenting, rather than pervasive advertising?


      • Edit for typo:

        “I see no evidence to suggest anything biological has changed for the worse in how the human being reacts to either booze or _Advertising_ since 1986 when I became 18.”

        In other words, I see nothing has changed.


  2. ps: a few points:

    – £350 million is chickenfeed; the global advertising budget for Johnson&Johnson and it’s combined subsidiaries is above USD $2billion; is it evil to spend that money pushing babypowder, babyoil, moistureiser, soap, toothpaste and paracetamol at naive young mothers who haven’t considered rubbing their baby’s bottoms with Lard instead, to prevent chafing? After all, if the manufacturers aren’t permitted to advertise, what options will the young mothers have?

    – So £350 is too much. How much should it be?

    I’m inclined to come along and see what’s being said. I presume you don’t have to be a mother nor a believer to gain admittance?


  3. so…. the evening is about GATHERING evidence… Which adverts (if any) cause problems for parents, and why? What can parents do about it? Thus the campaign (I think) is more about supporting parents to stand up rather than to do a ‘Mary Whitehouse’ and blast everything.
    @Alec, there is a case of ‘normalising’ behaviour that would be deemed socially unacceptable, and perhaps the campaign should be also looking at EastEnders and ‘tear strips off and mock people’ programmes like X Factor etc.
    @Trevor, I watched vast amounts of TV when young, and whilst the adverts were amusing, I don’t believe I was influenced to buy anything as a result. For example, I much prefer Hobgoblin to Skol, and that’s in inverse proportion to the adverts!


  4. The intractable issue, for me, is that advertising changes people’s thinking and attitudes. Why else would they spend so much on it? And it seems to me that children are more vulnerable than adults, though I take your point that grownups are exactly like oversize children!
    In many ways my fear is not that consumers will necessarily buy a particular brand, though some slogans (Beanz means Heinz, and the Remember a pint of best? Courage do! which you quoted) will perhaps provoke just that. My fear is the subtexts of advertisements which subtly reinforce stereotypes and stereotypical behaviours, creating a mindset in which conspicuous consumption is assumed and lauded. Yes, these adverts are often done with great humour and impressive production values so that they are little art films in their own right. As an example I offer the Heineken walk-in fridge advertisement. But think for a moment about the assumptions inherent in that advertisement, including the ideas that drinking is to men what fashion is to women; that acquisitiveness is the desirable norm et cetera, et cetera.
    And if I may? Whence your assumption that children will necessarily get “tanked” when they go to college? Is it that students aspire to that lifestyle exactly because it is widely portrayed as the norm, the expected behaviour, the stereotype of college life? A fashion portrayed through the media, perhaps? The promotion of booze through clever and memorable advertisements must, I submit, contribute to that zeitgeist.
    By the way, Mothers’ Union does try to address parenting issues, both directly (see their description ) and indirectly through the title=”link to Bye Buy Childhood page”>Bye Buy Childhood campaign.


  5. @grum, you will guess that I am as concerned about the current habit of “building up hopes only to dash them with a newsworthy putdown” as I am about the normalising of behaviour which is socially unacceptable (though one might want to argue exactly who decides what is or isn’t socially or morally acceptable, of course).
    My other passing thought was that if your consumption of Hobgoblin and Skol are indeed in inverse proportion to their advertising, then you have been affected, albeit negatively. Now if you had found that consumption was directly proportional to taste, that would be another matter! (though I’m less sure about the advertising after seeing the excellent Wychwood Brewery web site.)


  6. I think Alec is demanding a very narrow form of evidence and a very narrow form of causal link, and this whole set of questions and answers is reminding me of the internecine arguments about pornography and violence against women which went on in the 90’s. My view is much less about narrow proven causes and outcomes, and much more about the subtle creation of expectations to which our children are exposed.
    For example, I am profoundly unhappy that girls as young as my Alex (who is only just 7) are being targeted for games like ‘Dreamphone’ which seems to be premised on a)mobile phone based dating of boys, b)heterosexuality and c) stereotypes of ‘gorgeous guy’ v geek guy. She’s 7. Similarly, Asda are selling padded bra sets for girls only slightly older than her, which creates an implication that girls’ bodies are never ‘developed’ enough, and that they need to have products to enhance the way they are.
    I don’t know if you’ve come across Jacinta Bunnell’s ‘Girls not Chicks’ stuff in the US (Alex has a colouring book and I’ve met Jacinta) and she is doing amazing work on challenging gender/sexuality stereotyping. It strikes me that we need some of this kind of strong-but-empowered stuff to challenge the commercialisation and also premature sexualisation of children. (Actually, on reflection, I think the sexualisation stuff only applies to girls.)
    Advertising is hugely powerful, and children can’t be expected to have the kind of cynical evaluative approach to it as adults. If children see things in adverts they may assume the claims are real or the behaviours appropriate (cf the Tango adverts).
    This kind of thing is very difficult for parents. I am happy to let adults watch what they want, on the whole (unlike Mary Whitehouse). I am, however, NOT happy to have my daughter exposed to pro-consumerist, sexist advertising which wants to turn her into something obsessed with boys and possessions, desperate for larger breasts. I am not going to go so far as to turn the TV off all the time (but I DO turn it off), but I don’t want her to grow up surrounded by these kind of expectations.


    • I don’t doubt you’re unhappy about it, H – but your lack of happiness does not establish the fact that Alex requires protection or is being harmed in a manner which is a) abnormal and b) beyond your means to cope.

      I remember really pestering my father for a particular torch, aged ~7; I also remember a sort-of dog-themed action-rescue toy that was on TV. On both occasions my pestering was pointless and annoyed him – but from this I think it’s a given that pestering happens in any generation and therefore I believe the MU have a burden of proof for their claim that something extraordinary is happening.

      But I’m not going to rise to the whole porn-feminism-sex thing, there are better sources than me on that; I’ll stick to the “Tango Causes Happy Slapping” versus “Lazy Parenting Permits Happy Slapping” thing.

      Oh – and I support you managing what Alex watches / switching off the TV. Brilliant idea. I’m all for active parenting.


  7. I am not sure what you mean by ‘abnormal’. Just because attitudes are common in a society doesn’t make them morally right, or render them beneficial for the well-being of society as a whole. There is plenty of evidence in sociological/medical research about the impact of advertising images on young girls, especially in relation to body image and eating disorders, and these images have changed over the last 20 years.
    My concern isn’t about the pestering in itself at the individual level, as that’s part of being a parent. My concern is that children are being targeted as consumers like never before, and this has involved marketing products at/for them which would previously not have been marketed at/for children. They have become another group which can be targeted. In times of recession, too, parents will often continue spending on their children, even if they have to get into debt to do so.
    I think you are missing the point when you restrict the discussion to ‘toys which you wanted and for which you pestered your father’. It’s not so much about that, as about the blatant continuous construction of children as consumers. From my point of view, I also have strong views about how this links to the premature sexualisation of young girls. It’s as if underwear manufacturers have said “ooh….we sell padded bras right now to girls who are 14……but think how many more we could sell if we made 8 year olds want them!”. Don’t get me on the ‘schoolgirling’ of the Playboy logo. Or the Dreamphone game, which horrifies me on many levels. I’m glad the kids poledance set got taken off the shelves at Argos some time ago. Alex is very intelligent and so we talk about some of the ideas behind the adverts, but other kids don’t get that kind of parental input. (Maybe I’m more sensitive to this than some parents, as I live in one of the top ten teen birth towns of the country.)
    I think in order to grasp the MU point you need to think in terms of the impact on children as a whole, not just in the individual context, and think about what happens if we keep telling children they need more and more ‘things’. Alex goes to a wonderful Christian school where they had ‘money week’ recently and they decided love and family were more important- but lots of schools don’t do this.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s