With their spending power at an all-time high, kids have become a major advertising target. But what determines whether an ad is exploiting children - or their parents?
Child pester power - where children who have been specifically targeted with commercial messages harass their parents into buying the product - is either a monster let loose on unsuspecting parents by a cynical British advertising industry, or a toothless beast so heavily weighed down with regulations that its influence is about as potent as a McDonald's milkshake.
The background to the whole debate is that children are growing up younger.
'The critical thing to understand about reaching children,' says Nikki Mendonca, a media group head at advertising agency Leo Burnett, 'is that they're not how you were at that age. They're already talking about contraception at eight or nine.'
Recent research confirms how sophisticated today's children are. The ABC Global Kids study, designed by Just Kid Inc. and conducted by Roper Starch, surveyed 2,400 7-12 year olds, and their mothers, in the UK, US, France, Germany, China and Japan. It found that children have far greater spending power than ever before - with German children who enjoy pocket money and presents worth about $569 (about £350) a year each coming top, followed by the UK at $506 and the US at $493 - and more influence over what is bought.
The survey showed that when their average yearly incomes are multiplied by the total child population, the segment's potential spending power in the UK totals $2.3 billion and in the US $11.3 billion. On average across the six countries, 31% of spending is on snacks and drinks, 25% on toys and games, 14% on entertainment and recreation, 10% on school supplies, and 8% on clothing.
The commercial considerations have proved too juicy for companies to ignore. The problem is that while children have been identified as important targets, they are becoming harder to reach through traditional TV advertising, as - in the UK at least - their TV viewing is declining faster than that of the population overall.
Average weekly viewing by children has declined by almost two hours since 1993 to 19 hours, 23 minutes a week, with the BBC holding up well and commercial channels suffering the decline. Children are spending more time on PCs and electronic games and, in any case, children's increasing sophistication makes them very 'media-literate' as the admen would phrase it. The children's TV market has for some time reflected this level of sophistication. It is among the most developed with satellite, cable and terrestrial channels - such as the Cartoon Network at the lower end of the age range, Nickelodeon for 8-12 year olds and the recently launched Fox Kids - competing for attention.
Apart from niche TV channels, another ploy is to seek closer involvement with children's lives, away from the TV screen, through sponsorship and other promotions which give campaigns a longer life. Advertising in textbooks and other learning materials such as wallcharts is a new way to get a brand name in front of children, and one that is set to increase exponentially, as schools complain of underfunding. Firms like Cadbury, Pentax, C&A and Coca-Cola have already established a presence in schools.
Where does this leave advertising agencies? Well, some prefer to stay out of the pester power controversy completely. The UK's largest agency, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, has no toy business (nor does it get involved in tobacco advertising). 'We've always fought shy of it,' planning director Jackie Boulter confirms. 'It's not something with which we feel comfortable.' 'I've never been able to work on a toy account without feeling pangs of guilt,' says another leading creative, who prefers to remain anonymous.
Nonetheless, the recent McLibel case has kept pester power on the business agenda. In his summing up at the end of the libel action brought by McDonald's, Mr Justice Bell accused the fast-food chain of exploiting children through its advertising. This referred to its use of cult Disney characters like Pocahontas and the Lion King to promote its products.
The problem, of course, is determining what makes an ad exploitative of children. Strict Independent Television Commission and Advertising Standards Authority regulations forbid any advertising that exhorts children to ask their parents to buy a product for them, nor do they permit advertising that makes children feel inferior if they don't have the product. Indeed, one of British Advertising's most memorable slogans - 'Don't forget the Fruit Gums, Mum' - would not be allowed under current rules.
The most pertinent question is where advertisers' responsibilities end and those of parents begin. 'If parents have become so wimpish that they can't stand up to their children and are putting the blame on advertising, that's a sorry state of affairs,' says John Hooper, director general of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers. 'I believe parents are tougher than that. Are we saying that if there were no advertising, pestering would stop?' But then he would ask that, wouldn't he?