On the Campaign couch
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch

Dear Jeremy, Do you agree that if it’s legal to sell a product, it should also be legal to advertise it?

I wish I did. Life would be so much simpler if that were the case. And I have great admiration for those who argued the case for the retention of cigarette advertising while knowing that they were almost certainly fighting a losing battle and, while doing so, would make no friends.

But there are times – and this was undoubtedly one of them – when clear-cut, black-and-white, no-exception principles have to be applied with a degree of grown-up pragmatism.

It’s worth remembering that the evidence against cigarette smoking accumulated only gradually – and over a considerable period.

There was no single, starting-pistol moment in time when smoking went overnight from being socially admirable and recommended by doctors to being universally acknowledged to be a mass killer. Even now, more than half-a-century on, that transition is incomplete.

Good government lies in understanding the art of the possible. It was never going to be possible for any national government to make the manufacture and marketing of cigarettes instantly illegal.

As with the prohibition of alcohol in the States, but to a factor of several hundred, a vast black market of illegal (and dodgy) imports would have sprung into being. And the Treasury would have been deprived of half the revenue it needed to fund the NHS. And the governing party that made the smoking of cigarettes a criminal activity would have lost the next general election.

However unmanly it may seem, there are times when the rate of desirable change has to be deliberately tapered, allowing public opinion slowly to adjust. And when changes in behaviour can’t be enforced, changes in attitude occur more gradually.

Older readers may remember the fierce opposition to the compulsory wearing of seat belts. It took ten years of campaigning before the Transport Act became law – and then only for a trial period of three years. By the time the three years were up, however, public opinion had become overwhelmingly in favour. If the wearing of seat belts now became voluntary, my guess is that most of us would choose to go on wearing them.

When changes in behaviour can’t be prescribed, public opinion needs to be nudged.

So it’s still legal to sell cigarettes – but not to smoke them in public places. And it’s still legal to sell cigarettes – but not to advertise them.

It may lack logic; but most of us, I suspect, find it a pretty sensible compromise.

There are those who see this as a perilous precedent. Slopes are seen as perilously slippery and we’re reminded that wedges have thin ends. And I agree that the freedom to advertise – almost anything legal – needs to be zealously protected.

But I don’t think we serve our cause well by claiming to live by a principle that’s already been found imperfect in at least one instance.

One of the world’s richest people has said life would be better if we worked longer hours and for more years but for three days a week. Is this a good idea?

For 30 years, I didn’t much like Mondays. So, for the past 30 years, I’ve started my week on Tuesdays. And now I don’t much like Tuesdays. Coming back to work after three days is more of a jolt than coming back to work after two days. So if we worked three-day weeks, we’d be coming back to work after four days, which would be like coming back to work from a holiday but without actually having had one. The left-brain solution to this problem, of course, is not to work a shorter week but to work a longer one. A seven-day working week would eliminate the Monday problem altogether but has other disadvantages.

You don’t say how this rich person got rich but I bet he didn’t do it on three days a week.

Where is the line between behavioural targeting being just using common sense or downright creepy?

A recent e-mail offered to teach me how to reap great riches by learning the secrets of personalised, one-on-one behavioural targeting. It started: "Hi Chris."

I don’t find personalised targeting the least bit creepy because the harder it tries, the more obvious it becomes.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, Teddington Studios, Broom Road, Teddington, TW11 9BE