Fairytales are there to teach as well as entertain us. In Snow White, the evil godmother seeks confirmation of her superiority from her magic mirror - and takes her revenge on Snow White when the mirror dares to contradict her. It’s a lesson we can still learn today - be aware that what we see (reflected or otherwise) is not always the best thing for us, or indeed for the people around us.
The digital era has brought us our very own magic mirrors - the smartphones, tablets and other screens we all use in our daily lives. And in many ways the things we see in these screens are also there to confirm - or indeed challenge - our view of the world. The trick, if we are not to turn into wicked stepmothers or worse, is to keep a check on what we see.
This is where the EU comes in - more particularly the EU’s rules on audiovisual advertising and content. These rules go by the decidedly un-fairytale-like name of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD), and they have been regulating content - both commercial and editorial - on European TVs for many years already. But now they have been updated to reflect - like the magic mirror - the fact that increasing amounts of content are viewed online, and in particular by young people.
The AVMSD covers a very broad range of topics related to the audiovisual sphere, but the areas on which I want - to concentrate in this blog concern in particular the online world.
Spinning gold from straw
In another fairytale, the queen is imprisoned in a room until she can spin gold from straw - which she only manages to do with the help of Rumpelstiltskin, who asks a hefty price in return. Online advertising, in many ways, works in the same way: commercial value is created from a commodity available to everyone for next to nothing. Advertisers have understood that content creators on social media and platforms are well positioned to reach consumers, in particular younger viewers, and more and more of their output is now destined to be viewed online rather than on TV or elsewhere. It is only natural as a result that many of the rules that apply to TV adverts should also apply to video-sharing platforms, such as YouTube or the audiovisual content on Facebook.
Just as in the fairytale, where Rumpelstiltskin’s plans are foiled when the queen learns his name, the new rules will provide viewers with the knowledge they need to keep them safe. Platforms will have to request anyone uploading videos (like vloggers or influencers) to state clearly whether their content contains any form of commercial advertising, and ensure that users are clearly informed when this is the case. Kids watching their favourite YouTube channel may want to mirror the latest fashions on display - but they (and their parents) will now know whether the fashion or lifestyle influencer they are watching has been paid to promote a certain clothing brand in his or her videos. Similarly, if an influential gamer is sponsored by a game developer to test and present certain video games, this will also need be declared and the viewers will need to be informed.
Keeping Hansel and Gretel safe
Advertising on TV has long been regulated to ensure that the content of adverts is appropriate for the likely audience, especially when that audience is children. The new rules mean that online adverts will have to fall into line with this approach, and that parents can rest assured that their kids are equally protected against harmful advertising as they are when watching TV.
In another fairytale, Hansel and Gretel are captured by the wicked witch who tempts them with her house made of sweets. In the audiovisual world, the witch’s cottage takes the form of adverts for unhealthy food and beverages such as sugary drinks or fatty snacks, and the new rules will ensure that platforms strive to reduce children’s exposure to adverts for these products when watching videos, in just the same way as traditional audiovisual outlets are required to do. The same of course applies to even more harmful products such as alcohol, which must not be advertised specifically at children, or tobacco, which must not be advertised at all. Children will in fact be protected from any form of harmful content.
From Europe to the world
Most of the best-known fairytales originated in Europe, which has long been sharing its stories with the rest of the world. This is now reflected in the new audiovisual rules, which require video-on-demand services such as Netflix to ensure that there is at least a 30% share of European content in their catalogues and that it is given good visibility through their European services.
Introducing the white knight
Many fairytales are resolved through the intervention of a white knight, a handsome prince or a fearless woodcutter. The new AVMSD introduces its own white knight in the form of independent national regulators for audiovisual media services. EU Member States are now required that these regulators be fully independent (they cannot be from the same wolfpack, to use our fairytale analogy), and act in defence of media pluralism, cultural and linguistic diversity, consumer protection, accessibility, non-discrimination, internal market and the promotion of fair competition.
They all lived happily ever after
I believe that these new audiovisual rules will contribute to keeping us all safe from the dangers lurking in the shadows. But if we want the proverbial happy ending to this 21st century fairy tale, we must have the rules in place as soon as possible. The revised AVMSD has already been approved by the European Parliament. Now it is up to the Member States in Council to follow suit. Once they too have given the green light, each country will have 21 months to transpose the revised Directive into their national law. The Commission is of course ready to offer assistance where needed to make sure the new rules can come into force across the EU without delay.