The issue of the sexualisation of children propelled the regulation of brands and marketing into the spotlight last week.
Not only did the subject appear in both the Labour and Conservative manifestos, it was also deemed sufficiently newsworthy to make the front page of The Sun, which for two days running splashed on Primark's sale of padded swimsuits.
The Tories appear to have caught the public mood earlier than Labour. In February, party leader David Cameron hit out at 'inappropriate marketing' and called for agencies guilty of this to be banned from bidding for government contracts for three years.
He also raised the idea of a website that parents could use to complain about 'offensive marketing tactics'. Both pledges were reiterated in the Tory manifesto last week under a section titled 'Protect Childhood'.
Unity of purpose
While Labour did not respond to Cameron's pronouncements on agencies, it had obviously warmed to the website concept. It laid out a similar idea in its manifesto to guard against 'aggressive or sexualised commercial marketing'.
The only difference between the plans was Labour's suggestion that the site be run by statutory consumer watchdog Consumer Focus, while the Conservatives left this open. As one of these parties is likely to form the next government, this type of regulation looks set to become a reality.
Commenting on the idea on Marketing's sister site, Brandrepublic.com, Chris Barraclough, founder of direct agency BEC London, wrote: 'It's the only thing I agree with Cameron on.'
He added: 'The ASA is too clunky for most of us parents and life is too short to engulf yourself in their complaints procedure. A simple website where you can moan about an ad seems a good idea.'
His view is not universally shared, however. Ian Douthwaite, managing director of youth marketing and research company Dubit, says the ASA should retain control of regulation. 'Both parties want better standards, and we're behind that, but there are established routes to complain about inappropriate marketing,' he adds.
Douthwaite argues that involving Consumer Focus is likely to end up confusing the public and warns that it could even 'delay the appropriate action being taken'.
There is, however, more of a grey area where inappropriate products are concerned, as the ASA's remit does not extend to this.
As a result of The Sun's tirade against Primark, centred on a bikini it sold in sizes for children as young as seven, the retailer has withdrawn the line and apologised. It also plans to donate the profits to a children's charity, but the damage to its reputation has already been done.
Justine Roberts, co-founder and managing director of online community Mumsnet, has started a campaign called 'Let girls be girls', after members expressed concern about products on sale in high-street stores. It aims to get retailers to agree to end the 'premature sexualisation of children through their products and marketing'.
George at Asda, Boden, House of Fraser, Mothercare and Start-rite have signed up. Others, such as Boots, John Lewis, Debenhams and Marks & Spencer, are considering doing so. Only Next and WH Smith, which has come under fire for selling Playboy-branded stationery, have declined.
'(The problem has) been getting worse for some time and we are keen to start a debate on this,' says Roberts. 'We feel our job is to publicise who is on board and who isn't.'
Once again, marketing seems to have been cast in the role of scapegoat for complex societal issues. It is, therefore, vital that the industry now works to ensure that, once the proposed complaints website goes live, parents have no reason to use it.
SELECTED MANIFESTO PLEDGES
- Support parents who challenge aggressive or sexualised commercial marketing.
- Ban companies from using new peer-to-peer marketing techniques targeting children, and tackle marketing on corporate websites aimed at children.
- Protect children and young people from developing negative body images by regulating airbrushing in ads.
This article was first published on Marketing