Scandinavia: The rules of Nordic exposure

Nordic regulators are stricter than those of any other democracy, yet the region's ad industry tends to accept the rules and get on with it, Mark Johnson writes.

No-one likes being regulated, least of all the creative industries, which revel in stretching boundaries. So in the Nordics, where the respective governments regulate their advertising industries more than any other democracy in the world, you might expect much umbrage among its ad executives about the amount of restrictions they face.

The conservative, law-abiding Scandinavian mindset, however, means much of the advertising industry - although just as creative as anywhere else in the world - accepts the moral reasoning behind the strict rules. Mads Ohrt, the interim managing director at BBDO Denmark, explains it simply: "Deep within Scandinavian culture there is something that makes us focus on doing the right thing."

But at a time when ever more Scandinavian companies are looking to grow their brands and market share across the small but affluent region, there is a fear that such strict codes of conduct might act as a restraint. The Norwegian-based managing partner for Naked Nordics and Central and Eastern Europe, Eddie D'Sa, believes there is a real danger facing Nordic brands under such restrictions.

"I definitely think Scandinavian bus- inesses are disadvantaged; especially those which compete with international brands operating in the Scandinavian countries," D'Sa says.

"A good example would be a US brand usingproduct placement in a movie or a popular TV show such as Desperate Housewives. Scandinavian audiences will be watching the film or TV showas avidly as audiences around the world and be exposed to the product placement. But a local competitor brand would be restricted from using product placements in a similar way."

It's not hard to see why there may be such concerns. Restrictions on advertising across Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden are among the toughest in the world - certainly the toughest in Europe - and include a complete ban on advertising to children in some markets, restrictions on alcohol ads in most, limits on healthcare product promotions and absolutely no political or religious advertising on TV.

These restrictions are so tight that several commercial Nordic TV channels, such as Sweden's channels 3 and 5, have circumvented them by broadcasting from the UK.

While Ohrt and many other ad executives believe there are deep cultural reasons for the widespread acceptance of these regulations, he agrees that, to an extent, heavy regulation exerts a drag on the industry financially.

The Danish-based Ohrt says: "Of course, the moment the law was changed to allow over-the-counter healthcare product advertising, that generated business. When you have a whole category that cannot advertise, I'm afraid that regulation does affect our business negatively. For example, a ban on advertising toys or computer games to children tomorrow would definitely affect our business."

A caring approach?

Regulation of advertising stems from a paternal instinct at government level across the region, based upon the assumption that regulation of advertising will improve society.

The term "nanny state", which is often levelled at Scandinavian countries, has become something its citizens simply shrug off as a mixture of envy and cultural misunderstanding.

Envy because the region is booming economically and takes care of its citizens with the most generous (though expensive) welfare provision in the world. For example, the 1956 National Insurance Act in Norway has guaranteed statutory rights to paid leave for new parents, with new mothers given 12 months off work on 80 per cent pay, or ten months with full pay, which the father may take instead of the mother (by law, he must take at least four weeks off to spend with his new baby).

This "caring" attitude - endemic to the political and social culture - is reflected in the way the region's ad industry is regulated. Ohrt says: "The culture is more pro-caring than anti-advertising - that is the real reason why we are so heavily regulated."

In neighbouring Sweden, Frank Hollingworth, the creative director of King, agrees that the moral basis of much of the regulation is strong enough to find support in the industry. He says: "The ban on advertising to children is a pretty good law. In our culture, you shouldn't persuade children to buy things from you."

While Hollingworth doesn't be-lieve Sweden's ad industry is over- regulated, he takes issue with the government's view of advertising in general - the Swedish Government is debating outlawing sexism in advertising (Campaign, 12 February).

"In some ways, the government has got it all upside down," he says. "It seems to believe that society takes after advertising. In fact, advertising is just a reflection of society. We didn't, for example, invent sexism. By banning sexist advertising, it thinks it can do something about the problem. The government doesn't seem to understand that things like this are deeper within people. Advertising won't change this."

Pan-Nordic campaigns

One of the biggest hurdles to regional expansion, besides regulation, is the cost of creating four unique campaigns for a region populated by only 25 million people. The region's advertising executives are swift to point out that although Denmark is next door to Sweden, the cultures are remarkably different, demanding a tailored solution for each. Equally, the people of mountainous Norway have a very different lifestyle from those of either of its neighbours, and although Finland may be just north of Sweden and bordering Russia, its culture is distinct.

Heikki Kauppila, the managing director of BBDO Helsinki in Finland, uses colourful language to highlight some key cultural differences in the region. He says: "Finland is rock 'n' roll, Sweden is pop. Finland is Lordi, Sweden is Abba. By which I mean that the Finnish are straightforward, like rock 'n' roll, while the Swedes are much more sophisticated."

Grey Global Group's chief executive for the Nordics, Carl Erik Kjaresgaard, who is based in Denmark, agrees the differences are greater than the commonalities across the region.

"If you take ten values in the way we live our lives, maybe only four will be common to all of the Scandinavian markets," he says. "We all place a high value on good design and the outdoor life, and because of our climate, we like the cold as well as the warm weather. So we don't mind when things get rough. But the other six will show just how different we are."

The differences are often overlooked by agencies or clients. For example, a multi-award-winning campaign for the Swedish supermarket chain ICA ran into problems last year when the same ad that had performed so well in Sweden was run in Norway.

Hollingworth (whose agency, King, created the ICA ads) says: "It's a soap-opera-style ad about four people working at an ICA store and their relationships. The ad is updated (with new storylines) every two or three weeks, and the public loves them.

"When ICA started expanding into Norway, we thought the same ad would work there, but it didn't. What puzzled us in particular was the script around Christmas, which was ideal for the Swedes, who really liked it. But we did it in Norway and it didn't work at all. We had to change a lot of stuff, even though 100 years ago Sweden and Norway were the same country. So we made fun of the Swedes and the Norwegians really enjoyed it."

But would this costly approach, given the size of each country's population (Finland only has five million people), ever take off? Not according to the majority of ad executives.

An alternative to four national campaigns is a global brand-style approach, which appeals to so-called "universal values", Kjaersgaard says. He argues that pan-Nordic campaigns which focus solely on the Nordic region are not feasible.

His argument, however, focuses on the cultural issues. "I don't believe in pan-Scandinavian advertising. It's very difficult," he says. "We worked for SAS Airlines for many years and we conducted studies of the common interests of consumers in three Scandinavian markets. Both the agency and SAS concluded that we should do three campaigns. These days, we use international campaigns rather than go pan-Nordic. Either that or totally change the campaign for each market by going 100 per cent local or adapting a global campaign."

Nonetheless, for some categories - notably children's toys - pan-Nordic campaigns can be effective. Mulle Korsholm is the client service director at Grey Copenhagen and works on the Danish toy chain Top Toy, the biggest toy retailer in the region. She says that although the campaign is tailored in some aspects to each market, this is only because of the fact that the Top Toy brand is less established in some markets than others. In general, the Top Toy campaign is the same in all four countries.

"Over time, the campaign will be exactly the same in each country," she says. The reason for this is: "Children are more alike than their parents. All the research we've done shows that all families are not the same but their demographics are the same in all four countries."

She says that research reveals not only key demographic similarities, but that similar buying habits mean that the toy market in Scandinavia can be treated as one. "Buying toys has be-come very impulse-driven," she says. "Half of all toys are bought on impulse. This is owing to two reasons. In Scandinavia, supermarkets are now selling toys, and time is a more scarce resource than ever before. Parents are spending less time with their children, so they are compensating by buying toys to ensure the time they do spend together is positive."

A less restricted future

With three of the Scandinavian markets in the European Union (all except Norway), a change in ad regulations leading to a process of harmonisation with other EU countries is likely.

Kjaersgaard believes Scandinavian governments also need to realise that restrictions on advertising will become increasingly nonsensical when the next generation is receiving messages on the unregulated web.

He says: "The advertising industry is not afraid of greater restriction. These days, Denmark and Sweden are expected to adapt to the common EU codes of conduct. In time, we will be in parallel with what is going on with the rest of Europe. And, of course, the young generations can find their messages online. They don't care whether it comes from Sweden, Germany or the UK. The politicians have to be aware of this and know they can only restrict some things."

While Kauppila has been a vocal member of the Finnish Association of Marketing Communications Agencies in creating dialogue with the government over ongoing restrictions, he admits: "We're mostly just getting on with it, because we've been regulated for such a long time."

If predictions of a loosening of restrictions under the EU come true, the expectations of a gradual boom in the Scandinavian markets are high. But, for now, Nordic advertising agencies are content to respect the rule of law.