Close-Up: Live Issue - Time to curb government adspend?

Critics claim government advertising is wasteful and an abuse of privilege.

There are few better illustrations of the cyclical nature of politics than the story of a young Tony Blair attacking Margaret Thatcher's government when spending by the then Central Office of Information topped £100 million in the late 80s. In 2001, this situation was reversed when the Tories kicked up a fuss about the Blair government's pre-election advertising splurge through COI Communications.

History therefore shows that a key weapon in the Opposition's arsenal will be an attack on government use of public money for advertising.

So it comes as no surprise that five months before a widely expected May election, the Tories have pledged to cut their advertising budget to £60 million, or about one-third of the current spend (Campaign, 21 January).

According to Nielsen Media Research, COI is the UK's third-biggest-spending advertiser, behind Procter & Gamble and Unilever.

The rules on COI advertising are clear: it is not to be used to promote a party-political message but can promote government policies or initiatives.

The problem of separating these two agendas is obvious, and it is accepted that an additional benefit of government advertising is that by implication it can also promote the party in office.

The report, by the so-called Tory waste-buster David James, claims the Government plans to increase the COI ad budget from £189 million in 2003-04 to £260 million in 2007-08. This is in dramatic contrast, it says, to the Conservatives' proposal, which would contribute to total cost savings of £35 billion, enabling lower taxes. This figure compares with the £23 billion the Government claims it can save.

In particular, the Tories attack the Government for an overuse of TV ads - many policies the Government claims to be promoting affect small groups of the population rather than mass TV audiences; they could be reached using more targeted communications, the Conservatives argue. As well as being wasteful, mass targeting, they say, brings Labour a residual benefit by showcasing its policies to a wider audience.

As history reveals, politicking of this kind is inevitable, and when it comes to actually slashing COI budgets, the political parties seem to find it rather more difficult once in power. Opponents of the Conservative plans also argue that the success rate of COI advertising under the Blair regime vindicates the Government's eye-watering adspend levels.

At the recent IPA Effectiveness Awards, a number of COI campaigns triumphed.

Among them were the Department of Health's tobacco control ads through Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and Euro RSCG London, which scooped a gold.

While few would doubt that a campaign to cut smoking and improve the nation's health is a worthy recipient of ad budgets, the Conservatives focus their attention on the more controversial policies such as the New Deal, pensions and the new high-profile campaign for trust funds for children by M&C Saatchi.

Once the Government unveils the date of the election (an announcement is expected in March), all COI activity must cease. Until then, the tug-of-war over whether the Labour government has misused its privilege of COI ad budgets for its own purposes rages on as part of the wider electioneering campaign.

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CONSERVATIVE MP - Andrew Rossindell, vice-chairman of the Conservative Party and MP for Romford

"The Labour Government has abused its budget and used it for promoting its particular message rather than public information, which is what it should be used for.

"It's done lots of advertising on New Deal and benefit entitlement, which I'm not sure you need to advertise on TV - there are other ways that can be advertised to the right audience. If there's a particular issue that affects certain people, such as the elderly, then maybe an ad in Saga magazine is more appropriate. They seem to be targeting everybody.

"This seems to be promoting government policy overall rather than targeting the message to people who find it useful."

LABOUR MP - Paul Boateng, chief secretary to the Treasury and MP for Brent South

"These are fantasy figures, like much else in the James review. The level of government spending on advertising is expected to be broadly stable. It's not clear how the Tories arrived at their figures.

"The Government's advertising budget is not decided centrally. Departments approve any government ads to publicise people's rights, services and benefits by providing factual information, including highly successful ads warning of the hazards of smoking, drink-driving, speeding and so on, and not party-political propaganda.

"Those campaigns would continue under any future government, as they did under the Conservatives."

ACADEMIC - Dr Margaret Scammell, senior lecturer in media/communications, London School of Economics

"When either party gets into government, it makes use of (advertising) while it is in office.

"It has to justify its actions to Parliament and will be examined by the audit committees, so actions have to be justified in terms of value for money. Any collateral benefits are a perk of government.

"At some point, the question of political advertising will have to be re-examined. If the trend for the Government to advertise in a way that is clearly to its own benefit politically as a party - as well as doing other good - keeps arising, sooner or later this issue is going to have to be discussed. Either we cap it or we enable other parties to respond in kind."

BRAND CONSULTANT - Tim Broadbent, director of BrandCon Ltd and a former chief strategy officer at Bates

"This is not a vote-winner because the sums involved are tiny in comparison to total government expenditure. It's not going to reduce income tax by a penny - it's going to be something like a fraction of a farthing. It's a marginal issue.

"If you remember Bill Clinton's campaign, he had the words 'it's the economy, stupid' in his war room, because that was the one thing that mattered to voters.

"The point is, there will be consequences of the cuts. Those cuts will, in the end, cost them more money than they are currently spending on advertising."