Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: I'm a marketer, and I think the proposed ban on food advertising aimed at kids is a hysterical knee-jerk reaction by the Government to tackle the obesity problem. And there's plenty of solid evidence - from Ofcom, by the way - that shows that advertising doesn't have a big direct effect on what kids eat. That said, I've got children who pester me for sweets and burgers after seeing them advertised on the box. It's a messy problem. If you were Ofcom, what would you do?

A: If I were the chief executive of Ofcom, I'd resign right away - and then look around for a cushier job somewhere else: Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, perhaps, or coach to Tim Henman. Meanwhile, the problem remains.

After years of brooding about these things, I've come to the defeatist conclusion that, whenever society seems to get it wrong, advertising is doomed to be held disproportionately responsible. It's no good bleating about this; it's quite inevitable and anyway some of it's our fault.

Take debt. When NatWest, Midland, Lloyds and the Royal Bank of Scotland introduced their Access card in 1972, they launched it with the slogan, Takes the Waiting Out of Wanting. Bernard Levin devoted a full column to its condemnation and Archbishops pounced gleefully. Yet the whole purpose of a credit-card, like the whole purpose of a mortgage, is to let us have use of things before we can pay for them. Mortgages were so respectable that the state subsidised them, but actually telling the truth about credit-cards - in an advertisement - was morally bankrupt.

Advertising works best when it goes with the grain - when it encourages people to do what they want to do anyway. People want to eat sweet and fatty things and they want to spend more money than they've got. With or without advertising, they would. And when they do, it's a lot easier to condemn advertising than voters. And it's a lot easier to ban advertising than eating. What's more, we've spent a century trying to convince the world of advertising's astonishing effectiveness so we look a bit flaky when we suddenly protest its impotence.

As for your children: if you want to protect advertising's right to exist, you'd better teach your children how to resist it. If advertising ever became irresistible, it would be utterly indefensible.

Q: I'm a publisher at a magazine with a high circulation and a nice big ad budget. Every time I try to plan a campaign through my agency, the plans appear in Campaign the following Wednesday. Can the leaks in these gobshite agencies be plugged?

A: No. Gobshite agencies like to feed titbits to Campaign in much the same way that dog trainers like to feed titbits to dogs. They think, entirely wrongly as it happens, that as a result Campaign will favour them. But what interests me most about leaks is how catastrophic they are in prospect and how inconsequential they seem to be in real life. I've been fretting about leaks for well over half-a-century now and I can't think of a single one that's seriously screwed up a major marketing initiative.

But if you're feeling really fiendish, you should invent three quite different plans for your magazine and reveal each plan in deadly secrecy to one agency executive only. When the story appears in Campaign, the mole will be unmasked.

Q: What is your opinion of branded content? Is there any substance behind all the recent investment in the area or is it all a load of PR puff?

A: I have an absurdly purist attitude towards all this sort of stuff. I believe that the great consuming public (that's us, remember) has the right to know, when a product is praised or even just featured, if money has changed hands. That's why good old-fashioned ads are so easy to champion.

That old chestnut, "they speak very well of it in the adverts", is only funny because ads are universally known to be paid-for puffery. In the same way, sponsored links on search engines seem to me to be legitimate. By contrast, a bookseller's Book of the Week, ostensibly an independent choice, yet available to any publisher with a clandestine few thousand quid to spare, is no more legitimate than a brown-paper bung slipped to a regional planning officer.

I know that's not what your question was really about but it has a bearing.

Any medium, channel, platform or weasel that depends, even in part, on the hoodwinking of its audience is likely to prove an unsatisfactory investment.

Or so I profoundly hope.

- "Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4683. Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haynet.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.

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