Chris Snowdon, the head of lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, was speaking at the Advertising Association’s 2017 Lead conference in London this morning. He was asked to identify a threat to the industry’s future.
"The single-issue campaigner is the biggest threat to commercial free speech," he said, arguing that advertising regulation crossed a rubicon when tobacco advertising was totally banned.
He said the people campaigning against tobacco didn’t see it as a unique product – they would move on to new products once they had achieved their goals on tobacco, and the industry was in a weaker position because a precedent had already been set.
For example, he compared the decades of debate in the run up to tobacco advertising being banned, to the e-cigarette advertising ban, "which just sailed through without people noticing it."
He believed such regulation was an increasingly dangerous threat to the industry because the government has a need to be seen to act on public health issues. "Advertising bans seem to be an easy way to send out a message that you are taking an issue seriously", he said, but argued that MPs rarely thought through the consequences.
"There shouldn’t be a big distinction between commercial and free speech," he added.
Snowdon was speaking on a panel with Hamish Nicklin, the chief revenue officer at Guardian News & Media, and Lucy Jameson, the former chief executive of Grey London.
Nicklin took the opportunity to make an impassioned plea to the advertising industry to help fund media brands.
He argued that in a world of post-truth, the need for a powerful strong media to hold power to account has never been so important. He said readers were very engaged with newsbrands that "doggedly pursued the belief that facts are sacred."
While he said he understood the pressures marketers were under to justify spend, he asked them to think about the impact their decisions could have on a post-truth society. "Next time you see a media plan that slashes investment in newsbrands, ask yourself shall I sign that off?" he said.
Meanwhile Jameson believes the industry needs to rethink the way it works with small businesses. She said: "The biggest thing we’re not talking about is that we only work with big businesses, and wait until small businesses become big enough to pay for our services. We create barriers to entry for the newcomers."
Of the industry wanted to be seen as a responsible by the public, she continued, it needed to make it easier for smaller business to access the talents of the industry and rethink agency models accordingly.