BRUSSELS — Sweden is leading a Pan-European effort to ban television commercials aimed at children younger than 12 that appears to be picking up support from other members of the European Union.
The move threatens to wipe out $200 million a year in advertising revenues for Europe's commercial broadcasters, entertainment industry lobbyists said. Perhaps more important to U.S. entertainment conglomerates, such a ban would significantly limit the ability of such companies as Viacom Inc.'s MTV and Nickelodeon and Walt Disney Co. to influence the buying habits of Europe's children.
Though such a prohibition would be unthinkable in the United States, advertising aimed at young children has not been legal in Sweden since commercial television was introduced in the country a decade ago. Television pitches targeting kids get into the country anyway via satellite broadcasts, thus the impetus for Sweden to introduce a continent-wide ban.
Sweden, which held the rotating presidency of the European Union until last month, appears to be making progress on the ban and is considering attaching its proposal to the Television Without Frontiers Directive, the EU guidelines that regulate broadcasting and are up for renewal next year.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 11, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Advertising proposal--A story in Monday's Business section on Sweden's proposal to ban television advertising aimed at children misidentified Norway as a member of the European Union. Only four EU nations are likely to align with Sweden on the ban.
Campaigning hard with EU member nations and incoming countries, entertainment industry lobbyists say Sweden appears to have convinced at least five of the 15 member countries to support the advertising ban: Denmark, Greece, Belgium, Norway and Italy, all of which either have or are close to implementing their own regulations on ads directed at kids.
The Swedes have plenty of time to build their case with hearings, studies and the usual political horse-trading that surrounds EU policymaking.
Disney predicts disaster if the rule passes. The company worries that without revenues from those commercials at issue, private broadcasters will not be able to afford Disney television shows and movies.
"Any ban or additional restrictions on children's advertising in Europe would be devastating for the TV production sector," said Cindy Rose, Disney's lobbyist in Brussels. In addition to selling programming, Disney advertises its toys, theme parks and movies on European television.
But the Swedes maintain that claims of the demise of children's television are vastly overstated, because many European countries still significantly rely on their publicly owned broadcasters, such as the BBC. Most of these public-service broadcasters don't advertise during children's programming.
The Swedes hold the view that youngsters are not properly equipped to deal with the deluge of pitches directed at them while they watch their favorite shows and are not able to differentiate between entertainment and merchandising.
"It's not fair play" to direct advertising at young children, said Hans Sand, the Swedish government's cultural representative to the EU.
But according to Disney and other American companies such as Viacom, AOL Time Warner Inc., Hasbro Inc. and Coca-Cola Co., which market to Europe's children, the right to view advertising is a basic freedom.
"Children as consumers have a right to information about the products available to them. This right is enshrined in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child," said the script that industry lobbyists use in pitching their case to EU officials.
Sara Soltani, a lobbyist representing the broad coalition of advertisers, broadcasters and fast-food and toy manufacturers opposed to the restrictions, disputed the Swedish findings that children younger than 12 cannot distinguish between advertising and regular programming. She cited research that shows kids can begin making such distinctions as early as age 2.
Compared with parents and peer pressure, television commercials "are in no way a major influence on children," Soltani said. Once children are old enough to have money, they have entered the consumer class and should be able to buy what they want--"subject to the law and parental guidance," of course. They need advertising to help them decide what to buy, she said.
"Self-regulation is the way to cope with this issue, and government intervention is not necessary, and responsible companies can both value the welfare of children and value freedom of speech with no conflict," Disney's Rose said.
"Where our opposition has gotten some political traction has been in trying to paint these positions as awkward and incompatible, but operationally for us they are not, and we work with the two every day," she said.
Industry lobbyists said they have made some headway with the European Commission, which they said has been quietly discouraging the Swedes from pursing their agenda.
Though a total ban may be unlikely, some level of increased restrictions is still in the cards. The fluid nature of the EU policymaking process further complicates matters.
Viviane Reding of Luxembourg, the head of the EU Commission on Education and Culture, has come out against an advertising ban, which makes the Swedish push more difficult.
At the same time, the Swedes' EU presidential term ended last month, which Sand, the Swedish envoy, says will free them up to more aggressively pursue their agenda. Belgium, which replaced Sweden in the presidency, is expected to be supportive of a ban.
The U.S. has not taken a stand on the issue, although industry lobbyists said the U.S. probably will weigh in if the issue advances.
The fact that the movie industry's top lobbyist in Brussels, Chris Marcich, is a former U.S. government trade negotiator will no doubt add weight to the industry's concerns.