Germany is renowned as a strong economic force but risks becoming equally famous for over-regulation. Arguably, no other country is discussing the National Security Agency, Google and data security so intently or tries to protect its citizens as much. Just look at the attempted ban of the taxi service Uber in Frankfurt. Germany was so concerned the app doesn’t do enough to protect passengers from unlicensed drivers that it slapped on a nationwide ban (later overturned after an appeal).
Now this overprotective attitude has a new target: the marketing and advertising industry. Politicians in Berlin and Brussels plan new laws limiting, or even banning, ads in categories such as food, cosmetics and financial services – all in the name of protecting the consumer.
When it comes to data security, the discussion goes a step further. In Germany, consumers have to pre-approve data usage before receiving display ads online, spelling the end of direct marketing as we know it.
But do the people of Germany really need this level of paternalism? In short, no. German consumers and companies are sceptical and critical, and they do their research, especially when it comes to products and services. This is something politicians tend to forget.
Germans have access to countless channels and platforms to inform, share their experiences and even bash brands that are trying to deceive consumers.
The best example is Foodwatch, an independent organisation dedicated to exposing dubious food industry practice. Every year, Foodwatch nominates brands for the "Goldenen Windbeutel" (its equivalent of the Golden Raspberry Award) in recognition of the brashest advertising lie – as voted for by the consumers.
Consumers are critical and do their research, especially when it comes to products and services
Banning advertising is neither the best nor the right way to go. If consumers are misled over a product’s attributes or if children are targeted with unsuitable offers for their age, then the onus is on us, the agencies and marketing experts, to take a stand. It is not just about protecting the consumer; we need to make clear we are not facilitators of deliberately harmful conduct. We must follow a code of ethics, just like doctors or lawyers.
We have already achieved positive results by taking such a stand. Working with other marketing associations, we found a compromise with politicians over a recent minimum wage debate that had negative implications for both agencies and interns. By agreeing to extend the period of an internship from six weeks to three months before the minimum wage regulations apply, it produced a win-win situation for both sides.
It is our responsibility to add value for brands and their consumers and not to hide harmful information behind glossy campaigns. By doing so, we can become a stronger force in the political debate and make changes that will benefit everyone – and perhaps avoid yet another ban.
Wolf Ingomar Faecks is the vice-president and managing director at Continental Europe, SapientNitro; president at the German Association of Communications Agencies