EU turning into battleground over more curbs on marketing

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Why should the average U.S. marketer pay attention to European Union legislation? Such press coverage as there is tends to focus on bombastic attempts to dictate the correct curvature of a banana. This makes it too easy to dismiss EU directives as the meddling of bureaucrats needing to justify expense accounts. But, like it or not, those bureaucrats are paying ever closer attention to the advertising and marketing world.

American multinationals have been caught napping before. No one believed a tobacco advertising ban would really happen until the momentum behind it became inexorable. Although Germany is still challenging the ban's legality, long term, it is a lost cause. U.S. eyes should now be on moves to further restrict marketing in three sectors: alcoholic beverages advertising, marketing to children and food marketing.

Last week, the EU's legislative council began considering a draft recommendation to tighten alcohol advertising self-regulation and to set up yet another new body to regulate the drinking of alcohol, its marketing and how it applies to children and adolescents. This is despite the fact that in France, the one country where an alcoholic beverage advertising ban exists, the prohibition is notoriously difficult to enforce, nobody believes it works and the incidence of teen-age drinking is rising.

Little wonder then that marketers are becoming increasingly concerned about initiatives to restrict marketing to children. In this case, Sweden, the first country to introduce a ban on advertising to children under 12, is an active lead campaigner.

Weary multinationals may view such measures as cynical protectionism, and it's true that the Greek toy advertising ban, for example, has resulted in a fall in foreign toy imports of some 60%, but it is wrong to generalize. Scandinavian motives in this case are bound up more with stereotypical nannying tendencies than protecting Lego sales from Hasbro.

Whatever the Swedes' motives, Sweden's is a fiendishly complicated law: For example, you may advertise a zoo but in the ad you may not show children enjoying themselves at the zoo. As an aside, the complexity of any ban is why, when it comes to food marketing, most restrictions have come in the form of labeling rather than advertising controls. In truth, many would-be ad controls are bound up with the restrictions on marketing to children.

Much nervousness is currently focused on Sweden assuming its half-year as EU president in 2001, but a much more pregnant opportunity for change actually presents itself the following year, when the EU broadcasting directive is due to be reviewed. The worry for marketers is that no politician ever lost votes attacking the ad industry. It's populist points-scoring. Advertising legislation becomes just another part of the political horse trading: You support my ban on children's advertising and I'll oppose any reduction in your farmers' subsidies.

Not all EU advertising directives are bad news, of course. The comparative advertising directive earlier this year means that, after years of trying, it is possible to run comparative ads in countries such as Germany and France. And although EU bans influence public affairs and advertising policy around the world, they do not much influence the U.S. Instead, U.S. multinationals manage to restrict their own European communication through self-imposed political correctness. Nevertheless, if those same multinationals give up on the current debates as too parochial or obtuse, and fail to support the diligent work of the International Advertising Association in this arena, they could be in for some nasty surprises.

Stefano Hatfield is managing director and editorial director of adageglobal.

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