Intended for healthcare professionals

Observations Lobby Watch

Media Smart

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 31 August 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d5415
  1. Richard Cookson, freelance journalist
  1. richard{at}

What is it?

Almost two thirds of UK primary schools will receive free teaching aids from Media Smart by the end of 2011 ( The non-profit media literacy programme provides reading and writing material that focuses on advertising.

Media Smart says that its teaching packs, which it says are created by educational experts and cover topics such as language, images, and production across commercial media, “teach children to think critically about advertising in the context of their daily lives” (

But parents might view the lessons that their children are learning differently if they knew that the programme was funded by some of the world’s most powerful toy and fast food companies. The supporters are the Advertising Association, the British Toy and Hobby Association, Business in the Community, DDB London, Ferrero, Five, GMTV, Hasbro, the Internet Advertising Bureau, the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, ITV, Jetix, Lego, Mars, Mattel, McDonald’s, MediaCom, Mindshare, Turner, and Viacom (

The teaching packs for 6 to 11 year olds have included advertisements for food products and fast food retailers. Media Smart says that teachers might use the materials in various ways, such as projects for the end of term or by picking activities to suit lesson plans.

When Media Smart was launched in 2002 the Financial Times said that the initiative showed “the seriousness with which the industry is now viewing a potential ban on marketing to children” (

What agenda does it have?

The Children’s Food Campaign of Sustain, an umbrella organisation for groups campaigning for better food and farming, has called Media Smart’s approach “particularly reprehensible,” because its lesson plans repeatedly involve viewing advertisements for junk food.

The campaign says, “Teachers are instructed to show adverts for Burger King, Frosties, Pepsi, McDonalds, Walkers Crisps and the sugary cereal Hunny Bs.” The programme is funded by McDonald’s, Kelloggs, Mars, Ferrero, and other food manufacturers (

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, warned: “While there is nothing wrong with companies genuinely seeking to use their resources to support schools on a philanthropic basis, it seems that manufacturers of fast foods can’t help but introduce their support accompanied by subliminal, and not so subliminal, advertising. Teachers should look with caution at what is on offer.”

The Children’s Food Campaign says that changes in advertising regulations since 2007 mean that it would not be possible to broadcast an advertisement for Hunny Bs now, as the use of licensed characters to market food to children is now restricted. Showing it to children in a classroom, however, remains legal (

Media Smart counters critics by saying that it uses hundreds of real life examples of advertising in its materials. It defends its past use of the Hunny Bs advertisement, saying that the materials were written before the new advertising rules were proposed in September 2007 (Charlotte Higgo, Media Smart, personal communication, 5 October 2010).

Where does it get its money from?

Although Media Smart acknowledges that it is supported by the UK advertising business, its website does not make entirely explicit its link to an advertising industry lobby group called the World Federation of Advertisers, which champions and defends the interests of advertising companies.

The federation represents around 90% of global marketing communications worth almost $700bn (£430bn; €490bn) a year ( It has lobbied against proposals by the European Union and the World Health Organization for tighter restrictions on marketing of food to children (;

Media Smart’s chairman is Paul Jackson, also regional vice president of the World Federation of Advertisers ( The federation says that it “wholeheartedly supports” Media Smart but does not “fund Media Smart and has no formal links to the programme” (Will Gilroy, World Federation of Advertisers, personal communication, 13 December 2010).


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d5415


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