OPINION: The price we have to pay for change of political climate - New Labour might be all ready to form the next government, but its plans to tighten advertising rules could do the industry a bad turn, Simeon Duckworth of O&M claims

’Managing expectations’ or ’Getting your betrayal in first’? Call it what you like, Labour’s strategy to win business confidence pre-election has been pretty much a promise of change. A few new policies, but basically business as usual.

’Managing expectations’ or ’Getting your betrayal in first’? Call

it what you like, Labour’s strategy to win business confidence

pre-election has been pretty much a promise of change. A few new

policies, but basically business as usual.



So dare we assume that a Labour government will mean a status quo for ad

agencies? I’m afraid not.



Outright hostility to advertising may have waned under the banner of New

Labour, but tighter restriction is still very much on the agenda.



We can expect Labour to ban tobacco advertising as soon as it can. It’s

just a question of whether the final blow is dealt from Westminster or

Brussels.



The wider risk for agencies, of course, is that a ban will set a

precedent for restrictions in other areas, such as alcohol and toys

While further restrictions are still possible, albeit unlikely, we’re

assured that continuing self-regulation is preferred to any statutory

alternative.



Increased regulation is undoubtedly an important issue for agencies and

will remain the subject of much debate.



But it is only one of several ways in which a Labour government will

affect agencies.



Top of the bill, clearly, are Gordon Brown’s housekeeping skills. But,

leaving that aside (Budget crisis? What Budget crisis?), agencies might

consider three other areas where Labour could impact on their

business.



First, there will obviously be a change in Central Office of Information

business. Priorities are certain to be shuffled, with education,

training and financial services likely to come out on top.



But this doesn’t mean it will actually spend any more. While you

couldn’t accuse New Labour of undervaluing the importance of

communication, the same can’t be said for the Treasury.



Second, a Labour administration might inadvertently stoke media

inflation.



How? Well, it all turns on Labour’s ambition to bring forward the

development of the ’information superhighway’ - perhaps by as much as

five years.



The superhighway is very New Labour - a white heat mix of

communications, infrastructure and hi-tech. So it’s not surprising that

many of its centrepiece policies hope to exploit new media.



And how will Labour speed up its development? Very likely by scrapping

the ban stopping BT from setting up a national cable network, allowing

it to enter the market from next year. Many see this as the pay-off for

BT’s much-vaunted scheme linking schools and hospitals. Granted, it

might not happen so quickly, and BT will start a long way behind the

cable companies. But Labour’s policy of actively promoting new media

gives it a stake in making sure the superhighway develops as quickly as

possible.



The outcome will surely be to accelerate media fragmentation and, at

least in the short term, add to media inflation.



Third, Labour’s plans for a more aggressive competition and consumer

policy will weaken protection against lookalikes for many established

brands. There has been some talk on Labour’s front benches of

strengthening the Trades Marks Act to compensate, but there have been no

concrete promises.



A Labour government will increasingly rely on the advice of the

competition authorities and the Department of Trade and Industry, both

of which seem happy with the law as it stands.



United Biscuits’ partial victory over Asda in the Puffin vs Penguin case

might be used to demonstrate that brands are sufficiently protected

under the law.



Perhaps it’s a case of winning the battle, but losing the war.



So, while agencies might worry about creeping regulation, they’d also do

well to keep their eye on the rear-view mirror.



It could yet prove to be a bumpy ride.



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