Close-Up: Live Issue - Has adland got an image problem?

Andrew Cracknell looks at what Radio 4's Down with Advertising had to say about the ad industry.

It was less than two minutes into the argument before Fairtrade coffee got a mention. Less than a minute later, the question as to why ads never show the living conditions of the manufacturers of the advertised products was raised. From last week's Radio 4 debate on advertising, it soon became clear that the problem is not so much advertising, but an ideological distaste for capitalism and globalisation. But advertising is that system's outrider.

It's right to be scandalised about aspects of globalisation such as, for example, the destruction of third-world farming by subsidised produce from developed countries. But what's that got to do with advertising? Never mind that the bulk of its activity facilitates daily transactions by billions of people. To its critics, effrontery at the perceived blot of globalisation is projected on to advertising, so its morality is reduced to a battle between international coffee producers and local co-operatives.

Well, that's not quite the only problem. Susie Orbach, the author of Fat is a Feminist Issue, contributed her well-documented view that advertising is responsible for bulimia. Three years ago, Orbach told me of a concerted effort by food companies to get women to eat less. Apparently, clients spend billions on campaigns to persuade people to buy less of their products.

It would help if the critics could decide whether the business is responsible for obesity or anorexia.

There are other, quite petulant, niggles. George Monbiot was outraged that the head of the Advertising Standards Authority should be pro-advertising.

Should he be anti-advertising? Should a film censor be anti-film?

The attack was fractured, inconsistent and not always whole-hearted.

Judith Williamson, a consumerist writer sufficiently canny to plug two of her books in the first 20 seconds, admitted that "It's the economy that it's the engine of that I think is so destructive" and that the underlying issue is the actual manufacturing conditions of the advertised products.

But a perennial bedrock controversy, worryingly raised in the debate by the advertisers themselves, is whether advertising actually works.

The argument that cigarette ads do not encourage new users, only brand switching, is fatuous and fools no-one. Equally baffling was the recent assertion that advertising to children is useful because it helps them to learn how to decode it and prepares them for adult exposure to its full blast. That suggests advertising is difficult to understand and a hazard of modern life against which you need defensive training. Like mugging.

Criticism cannot be deflected by saying that advertising does not influence behaviour, because that begs the question of why bother? Fortunately on Down with Advertising the critics fell into the same trap in the dismissive way of all advertising opponents by smugly insisting that ads never work on them.

Or, indeed, their children.

But if that's the case, what's the problem? Well, you see, it works on other people. And other people's children. And there you have it. The illiberal restrictive arguments of the censor who knows best.

Prepare the counter-arguments but don't lose sleep over it because you won't change their minds. Although, I suppose, you could try an advertising campaign.

- Andrew Cracknell is an occasional writer and former creative director.

- Got a view? E-mail us at

AUTHOR - George Monbiot, author, The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order

"Advertisers are unquestionably a major component of the system, which encourages not only the poor to consume more but the rich to consume more - people whom already consume far too much as far as their planetary impact is concerned.

"(The Advertising Standards Authority) has no statutory powers. All it can say is stop running an ad, and as its wheels grind mighty slow, generally they've already stopped by the time it's issued its ruling.

"Advertising profoundly influences the editorial content of adult programmes by dictating what programme makers can and cannot say about companies."

I've tried many, many times to pitch a programme that attacks a company's products or practices or attacks the generalised use of particular consumer products. A major part of that difficulty is the advertisers don't like it and they complain like hell to the broadcaster if a programme like that goes out."

TRADE BODY - Hamish Pringle, director-general, the IPA

"Here in the UK we enjoy the benefits of having one of the best ad industries in the world, and it is valued by the public.

"People also appreciate the efforts the industry is making to improve the way people are portrayed in ads. At its best, advertising can play an important role in helping to challenge rather than enforce stereotypes.

"People are too savvy to be brainwashed, they know ads exist to give customers information about products and services so they can make informed choices, and that's a good thing. When we live in a high-cost economy, the only way the UK plc is going to survive is on creative industries and that includes advertising."

ETHICAL SUPPLIER - Harriet Lamb, executive director, the Fairtrade Foundation

"Advertising reduces choice because if you need, as the industry average suggests, £15 million to launch a sub-brand such as a new chocolate bar, that is increasing the concentration of power into a few companies.

"This provides consumers with less choice as smaller companies, or companies wanting to do things in more innovative ways, simply can't spend that kind of money to launch their products. As a result, they are being kept off the shelves.

"Consumers do enjoy ads and are influenced by them on one level. But on another level, people are getting de-sensitised to advertising and have reached saturation point with all these images and they are rejecting it."

AGENCY CHIEF - Helen Calcraft, managing director, Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy

"The industry has changed enormously if you think back to the times when, at the start of TV, you would have a huge number of stereotypes where advertisers literally reflected the audience they were trying to attract.

"A housewife audience would be targeted by a housewife themselves, such as Nanette Newman for Fairy Liquid for decades. Nowadays you see Samuel L Jackson fronting the campaign for Barclays, while the now-famous Howard heads the Halifax campaign.

"Women with normal bodies are being celebrated, for example in Dove, which is saying this is who women are as people and this is what we need."