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East: Advertisements Target Young Children

Non-existent in the communist Eastern bloc 10 years ago, associations to protect consumers from poorly made or falsely advertised products have since sprouted unevenly throughout the area. In a three-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Tuck Wesolowsky examines the consumer landscape throughout Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. This second part focuses on advertising aimed at young children.

Prague, 16 March (RFE/RL) -- Why direct advertising at kids? After all, they don't usually have the money to buy the things the ads seek to sell. Yet children are one of advertisers' favorite targets, because what children lack in cash, they make up with influence over their parents, who hold the family purse strings.

But consumer advocates say young children rarely understand the ads they watch on television and can been easily manipulated by unscrupulous advertisers. These advocates seek tight controls on advertising that targets pre-teenagers.

After decades of living without competitive advertising, the people of the former communist countries of Eastern Europe now find their countries awash in ads. Many of them tout products for young kids.

Last year, consumer groups in Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, and Poland joined in a study of what kind of message advertisers are beaming to children. They monitored television advertising during about 40 hours of children's television in each of the four countries. In addition, 10 hours of programming broadcast on the Cartoon Network were recorded in Britain. The U.S.-owned Cartoon Network is broadcast from Britain in English and is widely accessible to many households in the four countries through cable or satellite.

The results of the study found that children in the four countries are seeing many of the same ads as their counterparts in the West. But the frequency of ads varies from country to country. For example, children in Slovenia and Poland were exposed to 10 to 12 ads per TV hour, nearly four times as many as were broadcast in Slovakia. Most of these children-oriented ads promote toys and junk food (unhealthful processed food): cereals, cakes and salty snacks. The study found ads for vegetables during children's programming only in Poland -- and then only four of the ads surveyed.

Suzanne Gribble of the London-based Consumers International helped coordinate the survey. She says a lack of legislation and regulations on food advertising in all four countries is particularly worrisome:

"For example, in all the countries we surveyed, there was no requirement for food advertising in any of the regulations, which is a concern because food obviously is the highest advertised product, and the type of food advertised is unhealthy."

Gribble says the survey also found that advertisers' favorite tool for reaching out to younger audiences is cartoon characters:

"What we found in all the countries was the use of cartoon characters, and I think that was a big concern because as a young child -- they can't differentiate between what is an advertisement and what is a cartoon story. So they may be watching this innocently, but in fact, [are] being influenced through advertising."

Gribble says that Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, and Hungary do not yet meet European Union advertising regulations -- although all four are candidates for EU membership. The four-nation report proposes the introduction of more detailed advertising legislation, particularly with regard to children. The laws would be based both on EU standards and on self-regulatory codes of practice along guidelines spelled out by the International Chamber of Commerce.

Gribble cites Sweden as a country where advertising that targets children has effectively been banned:

"Sweden is the best example, in terms of the fact that their legislation is very, very strict. Basically, their ruling is that any child under 12 should not have access to advertising, whatever advertising it is, because as a child they're just too young to comprehend the messages behind that. And so it should be completely banned during children's advertising hours."

Norway has similar restrictions on advertising for pre-teen children. Australia does not permit TV ads during programs for pre-school children. And in the Flemish region of Belgium, no advertising is allowed five minutes before or after programs for children.

At the other end of the spectrum, the U.S. and the Britain have some of the least stringent laws about advertising aimed at children.

With incomes in Central Europe expected to continue to grow, advertisers are likely to spend correspondingly more money getting their message across in the area. That will probably mean more ads directed at kids as well.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.