Simon McEvoy: the planning director at Jam
Simon McEvoy: the planning director at Jam
A view from Simon McEvoy

It's time for a new era of socially responsible advertising

Simon McEvoy, the planning director at Jam, believes a probe into social responsibility in advertising has been necessary for a long time.

I was both pleased, and a little surprised to read the news that the ASA have decided to ban Protein World’s infamous body-shaming advertisements.

Now before you click away, this isn’t another weighty opinion piece about the rights and wrongs of that campaign. I promise. Those thoughts have been captured in more than enough detail elsewhere.

Rather, I want to talk about the news which accompanied the announcement – that the ASA were planning to launch a probe into "social responsibility in advertising", something I believe has been necessary for a long time.

This, in the wake of Tom Knox at the IPA declaring their agenda is to set out advertising as a "force for social good", including accompanying agency incentive (a special social good award) and there is clearly a shift within our industry to take more responsibility for the effects our ideas have on the wider world.

To start to see the audience for our work not as consumers, but as people.

Social responsibility

Now defining social responsibility in advertising is not going to be easy and many will call foul. They will claim we cannot be objective about subjective values and worse, that this represents a restraint on free speech.

But we already have strong precedent for this. There are many things we cannot do in our world of advertising – push fast food at kids, promote cancerous cigarettes or promote anti-social behaviour like violence or drug taking.

Perhaps promoting fear, body-shame and sexually objectifying women (and, indeed, men) should be next on our list of targets?

The reality is that people have more exposure to advertising than virtually any other creative medium.

Almost every place you look someone will have bought that space to advertise on (or tried to). This comes with a huge responsibility – to be kind, to be honest and to add value. Not to spread fear, mistrust and shame.

I hope the ASA also start to look at how much exposure people actually have to traditional advertising, particularly in our public communal spaces – like the underground, or highways.

Is it time to think about regulating how much exposure a brand can actually buy, simply to avoid every societal experience reinforcing the false notion that we are a consumer, not a human?


Personally I would applaud such moves. If for no other reason than I think allowing brands to simply buy our attention is incredibly lazy.

Creativity is most inventive when placed among constraints. The most awarded, and often most effective, creative work is that which goes beyond traditional media buys and genuinely adds value to people’s lives.

Adam Morgan’s new book, a Beautiful Constraint, explores this theme in detail. He touches on some wonderful examples where creativity has won over incredible constraints – such as Audi, which won Le Mans 24hr despite the constraint of being unable to make their car go significantly faster than their rivals.

They used diesel technology to make the R10 TDI pit less instead, on the basis that even a push-bike is faster than a stationary car. Morgan’s conclusion is that creating constraints actually makes us more likely to aim higher, not lower.

Our industry is one which has regularly shown amazing inventiveness at the hands of great constraints. I am reminded of this every time I see the Oxo tower on the Thames.

Despite a total ban on advertising on the river, the gravy giant Oxo managed to incorporate their logo into the design of the building, meaning it will be beautifully preserved there forever.

So I believe we should embrace new restrictions on what we can do and say as an industry. To revel in our new constraints and find new ways to reach the hearts and minds of people, through interesting, compassionate ideas that add real value to people’s lives.

And even if the ASA don’t regulate in this way, perhaps ideas like this are not a bad thing for us to aspire to anyway?