BRUSSELS -- When kids in Sweden watch the Pokemon cartoon series, they don't hear the jingle that everywhere else in the world ends each show: "Gotta catch `em all." The country's consumer ombudsman deemed it stealth advertising, ruling that the tune is a surreptitious plug for Pokemon playing cards.
That's illegal on Swedish television. In fact, Stockholm has prohibited all TV advertising aimed at children under the age of 12 since 1991, so the ruling wasn't all that radical. What alarms advertisers and broadcasters is that Sweden wants the rest of Europe to follow its lead. It has used its six-month stint in the rotating presidency of the European Union to push hard for severe restrictions on television commercials directed at youngsters, and it's made headway.
"They've understood the usefulness of a presidency to start a wider campaign," says Stephan Loerke, a lobbyist for the World Federation of Advertisers in Brussels. "They're gradually trying to forge a consensus among the member states."
The crusade is well-timed. The law establishing minimum consumer-protection standards for cross-border television broadcasts in the EU - the 1989 Television Without Frontiers Directive, last revised in 1997 - is up for review at the end of 2002.
Sweden is trying to forge a consensus to raise the EU's standards for the entire union. The commission is duty-bound to hold hearings on the directive, which outlaws all advertising within any children's television program running for 30 or fewer minutes. An informal meeting by the EU's culture ministers discussed the subject yesterday and they are expected to take it up again in Luxembourg in June.
An outright ban modeled on Sweden's is unlikely anytime soon. But increasingly tough partial bans, especially on commercials directed at small children, aren't. Partial bans could cover ads that appear within five minutes of a children's television show, for example. Or junk food ads could be banned altogether around kids' TV. What's more, to forestall government rules, the advertising and broadcasting industries could implement limits "voluntarily".
Many of the EU's 15 members have harsh restrictions on their books - including three of the four countries that will each hold the presidency for six-month stretches over the next two years, and that will set the agenda for meetings of EU cultural ministers and summits of heads of state.
Belgium takes over in July, and Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of the country, prohibits any advertising within five minutes of a Dutch-language children's TV program broadcast from within the country. Denmark recently convinced domestic broadcasters to voluntarily abide by a five-minute rule. Greece doesn't permit stations to run commercials for toy guns, tanks or other instruments of war, and bars ads for all other toys between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Lawmakers in Norway, Italy and Poland are debating setting similar boundaries, to the horror of broadcasters. "A ban on children's advertising would be catastrophic for Europe's television production community," says Cindy Rose, a Brussels-based lobbyist for Walt Disney Co. of Burbank, California. "They rely on advertising revenues to fund high-quality children's programming."
Broadcasters argue that the revenue generated in the EU every year by TV ads for children's products - between 670 million euros and 1 billion euros - is essential for the creation of quality children's programming. European governments have been pushing television stations to produce more of their own shows, to reduce the amount of American-made content that fills up TV schedules, but for-profit station owners say that without sufficient ad revenue, only fee-supported broadcasters will be able to even try to do so.
For its part, the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, believes kid-directed advertising is already adequately regulated in the EU. The commission recently conducted a comprehensive review of existing rules in the union and found that, with the possible exception of those regarding pornography and violence, "we don't need to change anything," says Christophe Forax, a spokesman for European Education and Culture Commissioner Viviane Reding.
But many countries think more is needed. "We'd agree: no advertising during children's programs," says Pascal Ennaert, an adviser to the youth minister of Flanders, who will be responsible for youth issues during the Belgian EU presidency. Flanders has the five-minute rule, but it has no control over Dutch channels broadcast from the Netherlands, or over French programs coming from other parts of Belgium -- or over anything transmitted via satellite.
The porosity of national borders when it comes to broadcast signals is a problem for Stockholm, too: All of Europe would have to outlaw children's advertising for Sweden's total ban to really work, especially with the proliferation of satellite broadcasts and Internet Web-casts. "Commercial pressure on children is increasing," says Maria Gasste, who heads the unit on children's television in the media division of the Swedish culture ministry.
Ms. Gasste, who has two young sons and has watched Pokemon with them at home, accuses the advertising industry of trying to polarize the issue in terms of a total ban vs. total freedom. "They say if you don't have brutal killings in the ads it's okay," she says. "It's not that easy."
While it seems unlikely that all TV ads pointed toward children will be banned throughout the EU, advertisers and broadcasters are preparing to fight moves to tighten current checks. "Talk and talk of a ban and then settle for restrictions to TV advertising when it comes to the review of the directive - that appears to be the Swedish tactic," says Simon Pitts, European affairs manager for U.K. broadcaster ITV. "The result would be the same in either case."
Sweden's Radio and TV Act has banned ads directed at kids from the first day that commercial television was allowed in the country on July 1, 1991. The ban was based on research that indicates children can't fully distinguish between advertising and programming until about age 10.
Scandinavian satellite broadcaster TV3 beams its Swedish-language channel from a base in the U.K. Sweden challenged the broadcaster's right to do that in Europe's top court and lost.
TV3's only commercial competitor, TV4, is the one that ran into the Pokemon wall. The national consumer ombudsman last year won a court injunction declaring the "Gotta catch 'em all" rap - sung in Swedish -- a strictly commercial part of the cartoon series, and therefore a breach of the anti-ad law.
Nintendo Co. of Kyoto, Japan, which owns the Pokemon franchise, didn't return calls seeking comment.
In the cartoon, Ash, a Pokemon trainer, attempts to collect magical little creatures called Pokemons in an endless series of violent contests. In the real world, kids collect Pokemon trading cards. TV4 appealed, and the Swedish Market Court in Stockholm ruled against the station.
Despite the victory, the ombudsman's office expects it will keep busy. "We're going to see more of this," says Swedish Deputy Consumer Ombudsman Marianne Abyhammar, referring to cross-border broadcasts and growing use of the Internet with a touch of resignation. "This is the world we live in."