The Magazine's review of advertising
The advertising watchdogs have upheld complaints against Marmite's fake horror movie commercial, after it terrified young children. For advertisers, knowing what's going to be scary isn't always obvious.
Viewed through the eyes of a three-year-old, a woman screaming in terror as people flee for their lives from an incomprehensible brown mass which inexplicably makes its advance down a High Street could be a vision of doom.
People like your mummy and daddy, in a shop - a place you're familiar with, obviously feel they're going to die.
The fact that big brown blobs can't, on the whole, move down the street or hurt you is one that your older sister appreciates. She's five and she has picked up that just because you see something on this "magic window" in the corner of the room, it doesn't mean it is literally happening.
And frankly, to your three-year-old brain, the extent to which the advert is a homage to the great schlock horror genre is a level of sophistication which will safely wait for a few years yet. (The Blob, the 1958 Steve McQueen film on which this advert is presumably loosely based, was itself an over-the-top comedy.)
The blob approaches
The further fact that the blob is in fact a huge lump of Marmite, and the advert is the latest in a series which has emphasised that while some love the taste, others hate it, will also keep for another day.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that little eyes might be frightened.
But, says Professor David Buckingham, an expert in children's perceptions of what they see on TV, these things are more difficult to predict than you might think.
The six parents who complained to the Advertising Standards Authority said that their two- and three-year-olds had been "terrified". Four said their children refused to watch television after seeing it, and two said their children had nightmares as well.
Run for your life
In initially giving clearance for the advert to be shown on television, the authorities accepted that it was "very mild horror that was clearly over the top and comical". It added: "The blob was not shown attacking people, no one was hurt by it and its pursuit of the crowd was in a cartoon style that would be familiar to very young viewers."
The ASA accepted that it would have been difficult to anticipate the children's terror, but nevertheless ruled that the advert should not be shown where children might see it. In practice this will include programmes like Pop Idol, which although not targeted at young children, might well have very young members among its family audience.
Dr Buckingham, of the Centre for the Study of Children Youth and Media, says children aren't necessarily upset by what adults expect them to be, and similarly they might be upset by things adults wouldn't expect. For example research had found children claiming to be upset by things as innocuous as Sesame Street and even a Fairy Liquid advert.
The Marmite advert, he says, does depend on some degree of knowledge of mock science fiction and an awareness of what is real and what isn't.
"Adults can read irony, but that's not something you expect of children of two or three," he says.
Happy ending - for those who like Marmite
Between the ages of five and eight, he says, children have to make a large number of complex assessments, one being the gradual realisation that television is a medium.
A paper written for the now defunct Independent Television Commission by Brian Young of Exeter University set out some of the marker points for these age groups. For the preschool child, he writes, frightening events will involve "strange creatures", and "supernatural incidents where the visual representation is odd and threatening".
"The fact that this even cannot occur in real-life and may be pure fantasy is not reassuring to young children, whereas older children will be frightened of realistic incidents that could possibly happen to them - a TV news report of a murder or attack on a young person in their local neighbourhood for example," he wrote.
Some of those phrases - "strange creatures", "odd and threatening", "pure fantasy", for example - might lead some parents to think it would be obvious that the Marmite blob would be scary.
Dr Buckingham says, though, that this difficult position for children is something adults have to grapple with as well.
"It's an issue for all of us, children and adults: how do you trust what you see? How far should you take things literally, and how far is what you see on the television a guide to the way the world really is? That's quite a complex judgement."
And with lines between reality and fiction blurring nearly everywhere on television, it's one that might only get more complicated yet.
Ad Breakdown is compiled by Giles Wilson
Four parents (presumably not just two couples) said their children "refused to watch television after seeing it." That is bad because..? I'm sure a lot of parents would love to stop their children spending so much time in fromt of the "magic window".
Ray Lashley, Bristol, UK
I think that is utterly ridiculous. Telly tubbies are far more frightning than the marmite monster, what is wrong with people
kate, Essex UK
When I was four, I had a near-pathological fear of the robot aliens on the Smash adverts. For months, I wouldn't watch television, in case the robots appeared on screen. When the adverts came back a year or two ago, the repressed memories came flooding back, and I still felt uneasy and had to turn off. I sympathise with the children freaked out by a big evil-looking brown blob.
Not as potentially psychologically-scarring as that advert with the gigantic disembodied belly that chased businessmen around, though.
Neil, Wrexham, UK
Until the marmite logo came up with the catch phrase "you either love it or hate it" I was pretty shocked by this advert. I can see why the ASA took the action
Ed, London UK
Aged three, my son happily sat though a pantomime where the wicked queen planned how she was going to carve Snow White's heart from her body and have it for breakfast. He's equally happy about Red Riding Hood's gran being eaten up by a wolf and several other grisly fairy stories besides. But if Thomas the Tank Engine looks like he's about to nose-dive off a bridge... Aaaargh!!!
Lorraine, St Albans, UK
Several years ago,At 2 or 3 years of age, my youngest son (now in his 30s) refused to watch Sesame Street. The programme had been 'brought to us by the letter K' and a kitten was dragged from veiw hanging on to the tail of a kite, mewling pitifully.
Ann O'Donnell, Canton, Illinois USA
A huge brown mass roiling its way along the High Street isn't a million miles away from some People's experience of the recent Asian tsunami. I found the ad disturbing myself. Certainly it could have been made less so while making the point. Jollier music would help - Benny Hill's chase theme, maybe. If it isn't acceptable to terrify children watching TV adverts (and that is arguable), I'm astonished that anyone looked at this and said "Okay".
And the product seems to contain a dangerously high amount of salt.
Robert Carnegie, Hamilton, Scotland
Radio 4 has been broadcasting a dramatisation of Proust - if a three year old child heard it they could become confused, so I think it should be taken off the air.
Paul Wells, Seattle/USA
As a 27 year old, I was not scared by this advert in the slightest.
I was terrified by the 70's 80's "Chewits" Godzilla type dinosaur. Should have been banned.
Great ad, though ...
PMN, Hampshire, UK