Media: All about ... Socially responsible campaigns

Is it time media owners shouldered their social duties, Alasdair Reid asks.

When Viacom Brand Solutions launched its "Force For Good" initiative back at the tail-end of 2007, it was promoted as an antidote to the increasing weight of bad press directed towards the advertising industry.

In the liberal left media (and especially the BBC), there has always been a festering sense of hostility towards the advertising business and all its works.

But there was a step change in the autumn of 2003 when obesity in children began to hit the headlines with greater regularity - coupled with a widespread assumption that advertising was to blame. Ditto the public outcry over teenage binge-drinking. Time, perhaps, for the open society to become less open.

And so it has proved, despite the best (but rather tepid) lobbying efforts of the industry. Political attitudes have become entrenched, the Government has deliberated and its regulators have acted. In an era when advertising bans continue to be implemented by increments, the assumption must surely be that advertising is deemed guilty until proved innocent.

It has to be said that, against this sort of backdrop, the VBS "Force For Good" crusade, which offers incentives to socially responsible campaigns and initiatives, seems somewhat quaint and peripheral. True, VBS represents some of the world's most influential youth media brands, not least MTV and Nickelodeon, but it's hardly at the centre of national life, nor is it a major player in advertising.

The VBS scheme is laudable for all that. "Advertising should reflect society, not try and dictate it. Advertising bans need to stop, otherwise we're all going to be in serious trouble," Nick Bampton, the VBS managing director, said at the initiative's launch. "If we believe that advertising should reflect what is going on in society then we need to show greater willingness and pro-activity to get advertising to air that is alternative to the mainstream - such as healthy children's food, hybrid cars, energy efficient products and recycled products."

On the other hand, last week, VBS served up a timely reminder that schemes like "Force For Good" are not (just) acts of Quixotic philanthropy - the company has now created a sister initiative called "Force For Enterprise" which will seek to offer similar incentives to small businesses, be they socially responsible or not.

It also revealed that "Force For Good" was responsible for 15 per cent of the increase in turnover recorded by VBS during 2008. Just as well, really. Six months ago, there was probably a belief that finer feelings should come as standard in the media industry. Now, they seem a luxury that few can afford.

1. "Force For Good" basically offers half-price spot inventory to new brands or initiatives that have limited funding but are thought to be positive for society. So far, 11 campaigns have been supported in this way. The latest is a campaign, launched last week, on Nickelodeon to support the British Heart Foundation's drive for healthier living for children. Other brands that have used "Force For Good" include Kidsnax (fruit bars and other healthy snacks aimed at children), Good Natured (fruit juice), Leapfrog (educational games and toys) and the rather more alarming and gritty Trident campaign to reduce gun crime in London.

2. The corporate responsibility focus of other UK broadcasters has tended to be on carbon footprint issues relating to day- to-day operational matters. Famously, for instance, in 2006, BSkyB claimed to have become the first major media company to adopt a carbon-neutral policy, implemented through a programme called "The Bigger Picture". And all of the major terrestrial broadcasters - BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five - are members of the Media Corporate and Social Responsibility Forum.

3. The mainstream broadcaster that has arguably made the biggest recent strides in this area is ITV. Last year, it appointed a head of group corporate responsibility and environment, Jack Cunningham. So far, ITV's concern has centred on broad areas of trust (not least where phone-ins are concerned) and responsibility to its audience in programming terms, plus, of course, carbon footprint matters. But it is increasingly looking at issues relating to the "power of advertising". Back in September, it teamed up with the British Gas "Generation Green" initiative to produce a new series (ten five-minute shows plus sponsorship idents) to run on CiTV and online.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

BROADCASTERS

- Cynics will always argue that broadcasters (supremely image-conscious entities that they are) will always do just enough to maintain the right sort of brand values in this arena, and that any costs incurred in doing so will always come cheap at the price.

- Those same cynics will maintain, therefore, that these sorts of feel-good advertising initiatives are, by and large, of limited relevance, especially when seen in the context of the bigger picture.

- Which is, surely, all about the survival and future prosperity of commercial broadcasting. Granted, pro bono schemes and other acts of philanthropy will help make more people feel less hostile about commercial television. But they don't really counter the wider threat to the sector.

- There's really no nice way to tell a government that it is wrong. Every little helps, though, as they say in some sectors of the grocery trade.

SOCIALLY AWARE ADVERTISERS

- Happy days. For the lucky few, even the darkest of economic clouds comes with a silver lining. But come to think of it, we may not just be talking about a small, yet perfectly formed cabal of challenger advertisers.

- Let's face it, British Gas may well be green but it's hardly green behind the ears. And after all, even the oil companies and the fast-food concerns and the distillers and brewers and vintners are all socially aware companies these days. Aren't they?

Topics