'Advertisers are snake oil salesmen', says Peter Oborne

ITV's Tom Bradby is used to setting The Agenda with his high octane topical TV programme, and his special edition for Advertising Week Europe yesterday lived up to the billing when guest Peter Oborne launched a scathing attack on the ad industry, and all those who work in it.

Peter Oborne: 'advertisers are snake oil salesmen'
Peter Oborne: 'advertisers are snake oil salesmen'

Bradby’s lively panel debate featured: Tess Alps, executive chair of Thinkbox; Lord (Tim) Bell, the advertising and PR specialist; Mariella Frostrup, the journalist and broadcaster; and Oborne himself, the former Telegraph journalist.

Oborne, who made national headlines himself last month when he accused his former employer the Daily Telegraph of kowtowing to HSBC (one of the publisher’s biggest and longest standing commercial supporters and business partners), set his stall out from the outset.

He said: "Advertisers are snake oil salesmen. I’ve no doubt that people in this room fall into that category, many of them.

"They represent everything that is most meretricious and shallow about British society. They represent in particular the Americanisation of British society.

"Britain has a very strong public sphere. And what we’ve seen, particularly since Lord Bell launched his campaign in about 1979, when he brought advertising values into British politics, is the degrading of the public sphere. I think it’s a real problem, and I think it’s something we need to combat."

Should politicians concern themselves with the ad industry?

Ahead of the General Election in May, Bradby steered the focus onto whether politicians should get involved in debates about advertising and the ad industry. 

Oborne left the two hundred or so delegates attending the Ad Week event in no doubt where he stood.

He said: "Politicians are there to articulate moral concerns about how society works. Advertising is objectionably consumerist, it’s selfish, driven by commercial considerations which conflict with wider society considerations like family and decency.

"Advertising is about as nakedly libertarian capitalist as you can get. Any decent politician with any ounce of morality should comment on it."

Thinkbox' Alps agreed politicians should take an interest in advertising but cautioned about how easy it was for them to be swayed by single-minded, partisan views that can have wider implications.

She said: "I think it’s absolutely perfectly reasonable and right that politicians should involve themselves in advertising because advertising only operates with the will of the people and the consent of the people.

"But, I think the way that Peter describes advertising is very upsetting. I promise you, although people might say negative things about advertising in general, when you ask them to name specific advertisers, they generally like them very much."

Alps warned: "Politicians are seeking power and so are subject to all sorts of lobbying groups who have got one agenda. And I’m afraid that sometimes for politicians it’s a very lazy, quick fix to say ‘ok, let’s shut those people up by doing that,’ without considering the consequences of doing it.

"You’ll be aware of the ban on advertising during children’s programming on HFSS (High Fat, Salt and Sugar) products that came in, in 2007, and since then children see 40 per cent fewer ads for those sorts of products on television.

"But, of course, the income that used to go to fund original children’s programming has been lost. So every time a politician decides for some rather shallow reason to ban a bit of advertising, something else suffers."

Alps went on to note that for many of the ads people object to, it is not the campaigns that are the issue but the products themselves.

Frostrup said that trying to place restrictions on advertising was a "pathetically easy target" for politicians with half an eye on winning votes.

She said: "It is something that politicians can stand-up and pronounce upon and get swift kudos for making some kind of moral statement that they believe reflects the public mood of that particular moment.

"I believe advertising reflects society, it doesn’t create society. And a lot of the issues that politicians stand-up and pontificate about tend to be issues that should be tackled at their root cause, rather than once they’re appearing in adverts on the screen."

However, the 52-year-old journalist drew upon her lifetime’s experience to lament the lack of progress the ad industry has made in some areas. 

She said: "One of the things I’m quite sad about, because it seems to me the advertising industry is peopled by some of the cleverest people in the country, is that stereotypes still flourish so heavily within it.

"The fact that women remain so objectified in terms of advertising is a source of great sorrow, frustration and anger, and I can’t imagine why such old fashioned stereotypes should exist in what is an incredibly modern and forward thinking industry.

"I think the same applies when you look at irresponsible advertising to children."

For Lord Bell, who made a name for himself as the architect of The Conservatives’ famous 'Labour Isn’t Working' ad campaign and his ensuing relationship with prime minister Margaret Thatcher, said "politicians should never intervene".

He said: "They attack advertising as a surrogate for attacking the product. They daren’t attack the product, because of the economic effect.

"Take the most obvious example of smoking. Why don’t they ban smoking? Because they know perfectly well that huge millions and billions would go out of the economy, and people would then march in the street and demand their right to freedom. So they ban advertising."

Lord Bell then embarked on another of his well-worn defences of smoking, refusing to accept Bradby’s assertion that "it definitely does kill you" with a semantic argument, "No, smoking sometimes kills you. More people get lung cancer who don’t smoke than get lung cancer who do smoke", he said.

Before he could delve too deeply into his belief that there is no evidence that banning tobacco ads or trying to restrict packaging on the industry in anyway had any impact, Alps interjected that the ad industry does itself no favours at all by trying to "defend the indefensible".

This inspired Oborne to start likening advertising to being "a bit like a pulpit," lamenting how people no longer go to church and instead take their social learnings from ads.

He said: "The classic case in point is that man Trevor Beattie, who is responsible for FCUK [French Connection]. A clever advertising slogan that degraded our high streets.

"Thanks very much Mr Beattie. I did raise this issue with him, about whether he felt good about having put the word fuck, effectively, on every high street. He came back with some sort of 'Well, you’re a Tory journalist trying to cause trouble'.

In case the point was lost, the Telegraph's whistle-blower added: "I think there are massive moral issues with advertisers.

"They are greedy and so well paid and all live in London. They are contemptuous of the country... Advertising is not just the sewer, it is the sewage as well."

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