Advertisers are taking on the lobbyists at their own game.
Proof that the advertising industry is fighting an all-out war on its
borders came last week in the shape of two very different offensives.
In Brussels, European tobacco interests began rolling out the heavy
artillery with a symposium to defend Europe from a blanket tobacco
advertising ban. The European Association of Advertising Agencies’
meeting is a last-ditch attempt to persuade Eurocrats to change strategy
before lawyers are forced to take the industry’s claims to the European
Court of Human Rights instead (Campaign, last week).
Meanwhile, a rather more covert attack was launched in the UK, with the
Advertising Association preparing for guerrilla warfare against food
advertising lobbyists. Through its newly launched food advertising unit,
the AA is masterminding its own version of a propaganda leaflet drop
with a booklet telling parents how to help their children decode
advertising messages. The initiative is intended to fight pressure
groups such as the National Food Alliance calling for bans on
advertising to children (Campaign, also last week.)
The difference between the two approaches encapsulates the changes being
forced on the industry today by the increasing threat of ad bans. Not so
long ago, strategies such as the AA’s would have been a standard
response from an industry built on self-regulation.
But the fact that the tobacco lobby has raised its game in recent months
is a sign that the fight is getting dirtier. PR consultants and creative
teams are being sidelined in favour of lawyers and political lobbyists.
Nick Phillips, director general of the Institute of Practitioners in
Advertising, sums up the current situation when he says: ‘You must never
lose sight of political lobbying because the balance of influencing
legislation has swung in Europe’s direction.’ Peter Waterman, vice-
president of corporate affairs at the toy manufacturer, Hasbro, adds: ‘I
don’t think you have to use consumer PR to mount an effective campaign.’
The reason for the changes in advertisers’ strategy is two-fold. Most
significant is the fact that the European parliament and its off-shoots
are producing more draft legislation that threatens advertising than
ever before. The trend is so marked that the AA has begun a quarterly
monitoring exercise called the Commercial Communications Censorship
study, which lists the sectors most under threat. The first table showed
the tobacco industry as most vulnerable, followed by sweets and soft
drinks, toys and slimming products.
The second prompt comes from pressure groups learning how to use the
European framework to best advantage. An association such as Consumers
International, representing consumer groups worldwide, including the
Consumers’ Association in the UK, is typical. Michael O’Connor, director
for developed economies, explains: ‘Trading across borders means we’re
going to standardise legislation and harmonisation will challenge the
British way of doing things through voluntary agreement. There is going
to be debate and the best debate will win.’
Response from the better-organised advertising concerns has been to prepare for the challenge. Phillips says that representative bodies of
European advertising and marketing associations, such as Fedim and EAAA,
have pulled their socks up ‘because members have demanded that they be
kept informed. Associations have had to link up to monitoring systems
and hire lobbyists.’
Industries have also had to become more professional in direct
representation. In 1990, toy companies such as Hasbro, Mattel and Lego
formed the Toy Manufacturers of Europe association. With a Brussels
office of 30-40 staff on release from individual companies, the TME
concentrates its efforts on the European parliament with help from the
lobby company, European Strategy. As Waterman says: ‘Influencing public
opinion in individual countries is potentially difficult and expensive.
We don’t do it because we can’t spread ourselves widely enough.’
The comment reveals what national pressure groups have been learning for
some time - if you are going to press your case at local level at all,
superficial PR is not enough. Proof comes from the Portman Group, set up
in 1989 by the UK’s leading drinks companies to promote sensible
drinking through education, supporting government initiatives and
industry policing. It has gained credibility through its strategy of
‘owning the problem’, because, as Andrew Chevis, director of public
affairs, comments: ‘This was never just a two- or three-year PR
The AA’s food unit seems set to embark on a similarly rigorous strategy.
With the emphasis on educating parents to help their children, the unit
wants to raise the standard of debate to an intelligent level. Lionel
Stanbrook, director of political affairs at the AA, says: ‘I’d rather
have proper debate about research than a manipulative PR exercise.’
Though even here, Jenina Bas, the unit’s manager, admits: ‘Consumer
communication needs to be done in hand with political lobbying.’
The acknowledgment is one more sign that the industry is coming of age
in the battle to defend its territory. Compelling argument, high-level
organisation and contacts are what will count in the battle of the bans.
The gentler arts of persuasion are something that advertisers will have
to reserve for their brands from now on.
Leader, page 27