A view from Maisie McCabe

Ad industry must not abuse its position of privilege

On a stiflingly hot summer's day last week, a coterie of executives from the advertising, media and political worlds came together for a glass of...

The culture minister, Ed Vaizey, had been due to speak but, after he had to bow out, it was left to the Advertising Association president, Andy Duncan, to do a "Florence and the Machine"– but with less jumping and fewer flashing orange lights.

Duncan used the podium to reaffirm the AA’s commitment to working towards a more responsible adland. If the ad industry wants to continue to have the "privilege" of self-regulation, then it needs to learn what it means to be responsible, Duncan said.

Since taking over from the BT chief executive, Gavin Patterson, in January 2014, Duncan has encouraged this theme of responsibility. It’s no longer enough to stick to "the line in the sand that we’ve had for the last five decades", he said. Instead, Duncan wants the industry to "tread over that line, however challenging that might be".

At a recent meeting, the AA’s council affirmed the plans, paving the way for action. And they’re jumping straight in. First on the agenda is obesity and kids. Mike Hughes, the ISBA director-general, is already "engaged in that discussion", according to Duncan. After five decades of insisting that obesity isn’t the fault of food high in sugar, salt and fat, it seems that a proper shift might take place.

Where the ad industry once might have just disagreed with campaigning feminists, this time it took the initiative

Also in attendance was the former Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson. She was heavily involved in campaigning about airbrushing and body image even before becoming the minister for women and equalities in 2012. Instead of ignoring the issue, or trying to shut down the debate, the AA worked with her to ascertain whether there was a problem.

The AA’s think-tank, Credos, produced research into ethnicity and body image in advertising, including 2011’s Pretty As A Picture, that has informed the industry’s approach. Where the ad industry once might have just disagreed with campaigning feminists, this time it took the initiative to really look at what people thought about the issue and changed its position as a result.

And a renewed practical impetus is not before time. The issue of self-regulation of advertising came up in the House of Lords last Monday. Criticism came from not only Baroness Deech, who has crossed swords with the Advertising Standards Authority before, but also from Channel 4’s diversity executive, Baroness King, who one might have hoped would have got the message.

With charter renewal and more over the next few years, it seems as though everything is up for grabs. We should all make sure these good intentions around responsibility come to something over the next 18 months. Because, if we don’t, the power to change things might be ripped away from us.