This article is part of our special report Food & Responsible Marketing.
Policymakers believe consumers need to be more critical about the messages they receive in the media, as people have little chance of escaping from advertising in today's commercially-filled world.
The European Commission is pushing member states to include media courses in their education programmes in order to help EU citizens to become active users of the media.
A Commission recommendation on media literacy, published in 2009, encourages governments to boost citizens' awareness of emerging risks in new media, such as privacy breaches or hidden advertisements.
The EU executive also asked the media industry to provide citizens with a means to "better identify the boundaries between marketing and content".
For example, it suggested holding "awareness-raising campaigns about techniques used for commercial communication purposes, notably about product placement and online advertising".
EU member states also recognise the importance of media literacy and the European Parliament has suggested developing media literacy programmes "to promote active and aware citizenship in Europe".
Media literacy for commercial communication
With the Internet taking up a growing share of the media market, especially among the younger generation, the European Commission has developed an EU approach to media literacy in the digital environment. The communication, adopted in 2007, encouraged initiatives in several areas:
- Giving young audiences tools to develop a critical approach to commercial communication, enabling them to make informed choices;
- Raising awareness about industry codes of conduct, and;
- Encouraging public/private financing in this area with adequate transparency.
One example of a privately-funded programme is Media Smart, which provides educational materials to primary schools free of charge with the aim of teaching children to think critically about advertising in the context of their daily lives.
The initiative is funded by the advertising business in the UK and supported by Britain and other EU governments.
It was launched in the UK in November 2002 and has since been rolled out in several EU countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Portugal, Hungary and France.
Will Gilroy from the World Federation of Advertisers noted that "as far as we were aware, back in 2002 there was nothing in schools which taught children to be media-literate or at least media-educated".
But since it is virtually impossible to hide all advertising from children, Gilroy said the industry can "help give children the skills to be critical and discerning in a commercially-filled world".
Consumer groups suspicious about industry funding
However, the merits of such private initiatives are questioned by European consumer organisation BEUC, which argues that industry-funded programmes like Media Smart let the wolf into the sheepfold.
"Giving industry the opportunity to teach children about advertising […] it is not very clear how it works. So we would prefer if it was done by an independent body," commented BEUC's Ruth Veale, suggesting that people would have more trust in such initiatives if they were done "away from industry".
Meanwhile, Will Gilroy stressed that "industry does not claim to have a role in educating children, but in enabling it". It is not true to say that "industry is going into schools, teaching," he said, adding that while industry pays for the Media Smart programme, the money is given directly to the academics and experts who develop the materials.
Last month, the European Parliament's committee on the internal market and consumer protection suggested developing programmes like 'Media Smart' in all EU countries.
The draftsman of the report, MEP Philippe Juvin (European People's Party; France) said he had no problem with industry financing such initiatives, but cautioned: "It depends on the level of power the industry has in the definition of the message that is delivered through the programme."
"We probably need to work with industry – it's impossible to imagine procedures and tools without the industry, but we have to be aware of the dangers of such an association," Juvin said.
Aside from the need to educate children to make them media-savvy, the European Commission notes that marketing, products and services are becoming increasingly complex, making it more difficult for consumers as a whole to make informed choices.
In order to tackle the issue, the Commission is planning to table a non-legislative communication on consumer empowerment in 2012.
The idea is "to put together best practices on consumer empowerment with regard to information, education, media, representation and redress". It will also involve identifying best practices in areas such as information on rights, consumer education and capacity-building.
But for BEUC, consumer education is mainly an excuse to avoid legislating and more about "putting the onus back on the consumer so that it is up to them to make the right decision".
Veale said that while education is important, "you will also need tools and the instruments in place to use what you have learned".
"You can educate until the cows come home," she said of food advertising. But if the products don't have a clear labelling scheme or are somehow misleading, she says education becomes meaningless.