THE CAMPAIGN ESSAY: Life after tobacco - With a ban on tobacco advertising set to become law before the year's end, Chris Powell says why moves to impose similar bans on advertising alcohol, some foods or to children are misguided

Having defended the indefensible ruins your credibility when you try to defend the defensible. For far too long the advertising industry defended the advertising of tobacco. It hasn't worked, it will be banned within the year. The world will have concluded that we will take on anything that gives us an income whatever the rights or wrongs.

Now we have to speak up against the moves to ban the advertising of alcohol, food and advertising to young children having ensured that our audience is thoroughly cynical about our motives. Not the best basis for persuasion.

Tobacco is fundamentally different from other products. Normal use is harmful to all and will kill many of its users. If you follow the manufacturer's directions your health will suffer and you stand a good chance of dying prematurely. It cannot be right to do anything that encourages use of such a product.

Despite the pleading that the makers are only trying to encourage brand switching (I'm sure they are), the very act of advertising implies to doubt-wracked smokers that it is alright to continue with their habit: "The Government wouldn't allow them to advertise if it was really that harmful."

Supporters make the reasonable-sounding argument that it is legal to sell, so it should be legal to promote . But we all know that that is just an accident of history. If tobacco was discovered now, its sale would not be permitted.

I don't want to flog a, very nearly, dead horse. Over the years, advertising spend on tobacco has shrunk; last year it was only around £20 million in total. I do want us to be clear about the other areas where advertising is under threat.

It's rather too possible to become a bit pious and pretentious about all this. We are not the guardians of public morality nor is it our job to tell our clients what they should make or market. We're advocates, public advocates. We put the case for the brands we represent to the public, while a barrister puts the case for his client to a jury or a judge. To do so we don't need to believe that Hob Nobs taste better than Digestives, we just have to put the case most persuasively (gone are the barmy days when you were only meant to use the client's product and stay in blissful ignorance of the alternatives).

However, there are limits. Just as a barrister must not plead the innocence of the client if he or she has become convinced that the client is guilty, we should not advertise a product we know to be harmful.

Is alcohol harmful? Are fattening foods harmful? Is advertising to young children harmful? These are the questions we are faced with now.

Guinness used to be sold for its medicinal properties - "Guinness is good for you

- and the medical evidence still seems to be that, in moderation, alcohol does you good. The only argument against advertising it is based on its abuse.

But then almost everything is harmful in excess. Wild driving, a diet of only chocolate, too much work are all bad for you, but that is not a sensible reason to ban the promotion of the pleasures and benefits of driving, or buying a chocolate bar or earning your living. Glorifying drunkenness would be irresponsible, but there are rules about things like that.

There are, it is becoming clear, those who are genetically susceptible to alcoholism. How about them? If you have this susceptibility you are going to have to be careful whatever, advertising won't make any difference.

As long as alcohol is freely available, its addictive properties to some will be a problem.

A few have a fatal allergic reaction to peanuts. Should we not advertise peanuts? It's daft to treat us like this, those with the allergy know what to avoid. It serves no purpose to try to deny the availability of the product, that is not in a sensible proportion to the problem.

The Advertising Association ran a conference on the issue of food advertising earlier this year. Campaigners claim that the young are subjected to a barrage of advertising for crisps, biscuits, burgers and other foods which are fattening and take up too large a part of too many youngsters' diets.

The growing problem of obesity is blamed on this promotion.

There is no doubt that the incidence of obesity in the young is increasing.

Nor is there any doubt that much money is spent advertising brands of food which, on their own, do not make for a healthy diet. However, there is no evidence of any causal link, and common sense suggests that obesity is a result of a lack of exercise, and that unbalanced diet needs the correction of a more attractive presentation and promotion of vegetables and fruit.

There's nothing wrong with crisps, chocolate and biscuits as long as that isn't all you eat and you don't spend all day sitting on your bum watching the telly. Once again, it is a problem with the abuse of the brands that are advertised not an intrinsic harmfulness.

The most difficult issue to me is advertising to young children, but I think this is because of the obvious emotion that is intrinsic to the subject matter. Dickens and nature have conditioned us to be concerned at a deprived and disappointed child. Small children seeing attractive products on TV will want them. Some parents can afford to meet their whims, others cannot. Surely this is not right?

It is certainly heartrending to see a child's wishes thwarted when another's is met. But then, bringing up the young is largely a process of denying them things that they want - a third helping of sticky pudding, a five hundred and fifty sixth go on the swing, their little sister's favourite toy, pulling the cat's tail really hard. I struggle to see the difference between toy advertising and this gradual coming to terms with the reality that we cannot have what we want every time in this world. TV advertising is an irrelevant pin prick in the enormity of this process.

But who, anyway, is meant to take a view on what should and should not be advertised: the individual, the company or the industry? The individual certainly. No agency should ever try to lean on anyone to work on anything they don't feel comfortable with. I suppose the company, although I struggle with the idea of a company line. If some people in the agency want to work on a particular cause, say, that is legal, why should the management stop them?

I have relied on this approach to get up teams on various leftish causes - it implies nothing about the agency management's political views one way or another. I would be uncomfortable if BMP DDB worked for the Conservatives, but no more than that.

Maybe some at BMP are pained that I and others do what we do. Shouldn't the same approach be taken to other controversial areas of advertising such as alcohol or toys? The industry only needs to take a stance in defence.

If the majority feel their rights are potentially infringed by threats to advertising, then they can collectively lobby as , indeed, they do.

I fear I may suffer from the zealotry of the convert. I'm an ex-smoker with still fond memories of the habit (and still fond memories of some of the best advertising there has ever been in Britain) so I'm sorry if my condemnation of tobacco promotion seems a mite hysterical. Hysterical, but probably right.

We now have to repair the damage that the defence of tobacco has done to the cause of advertising. Too many of the objectors to what we do confuse symptom with cause. They are right to be concerned about obesity and alcohol abuse, but wrong to think that advertising is the cause. It is easy to see why they do - the nature of our trade is to be visible. We advertise drink, people get drunk, QED.

There is, however, no popular momentum behind any of these objections. Some lobbyists with a particular interest in the field, with a proper concern for the problems, are questioning what we do. If we are a cause of liver damage and dietary problems then we need to change what we do, but it is in no-one's interest to jump to conclusions.

In each case we should work with the lobbying groups encouraging analysis and understanding to identify the true cause of the problems. If it turns out that advertising is a major cause for ill then we should voluntarily change our behaviour, but until then we should stick to what common sense suggests. We need to remember that all the contentious areas of advertising are already heavily circumscribed by regulation.

The tolerance of advertising in this country is based on its quality. It's entertainment and ingenuity are enjoyed by most, most of the time.

The Advertising Standards Authority's just completed research is a heartening confirmation that we have public support for what we do because of the way that we do it.

Advertising is liked as part of everyday life, providing useful information, entertainment and being part of the culture. As Andrew Cracknell said in his piece (Campaign, Essay, 15 March), the only problems are with overload and irritation; the only dubiety is about financial claims, not alcohol or toys. But let's not throw all that good opinion away by blatantly encouraging harmful behaviour again. Public acceptance is our most vital asset.


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