Labour treads the tightrope on advertising

Following her controversial comments at a recent conference, the Shadow Minister for Culture, Media and Sport Helen Goodman clarifies her statements and explains the Labour Party's policy on advertising. By Kate Magee.

Helen Goodman
Helen Goodman

You believe your comments at the Advertising Association conference have been misinterpreted. Can you clarify Labour’s position on the advertising industry?

[During the session, I said] advertising was a big part of the economy. It is essential to giving consumers choice and power in a modern market. I think I fully acknowledged the important contribution advertising makes to the British economy.

I then said there are two ways in which you can regulate advertising. You can either have rules about the nature of the advertising, how the advertising should work; and/or you can have rules about what can be advertised and to whom.

In this country, the first part of that – how advertisers should behave – is dealt with in a self-regulatory way by the Advertising Standards Authority. And I said it does a good job.

On the second part, we already have laws on what can be advertised. We have rules about unhealthy food during children’s television, tobacco and alcohol advertising.

And what I said – what our position is – is that because those things are big public health issues, and if you get those wrong the consequences are massive for both individuals and society in terms of NHS costs, obviously we’re going to keep our eye on whether the existing rules are delivering what we want.

That’s not a threat. It’s not a promise. It’s an observation, but it’s a realistic observation. In my final words, I said that is a compliment to advertising because it’s effective.

Any government keeps its eye on those public health issues, which are in a rather different category from the general run of the mill of how to advertise a car or a lipstick. Quite honestly, I’m sort of astounded that anyone should think there’s anything controversial about this.

So that’s our position. Stick with the ASA but keep our eye on the public health matters.

You said it would be absurd to suggest that advertising caused the 2011 riots, but you also told a story about a pair of Nike trainers that implied there was a link. That’s what people seem most upset by: the idea that ‘excesses of marketing’ somehow caused the riots.

I told a story that had been told to me. After the riots, there was a panel set up and one of the people on the panel said she’d had a long conversation with some kids and it really did take her 20 minutes to get through to them that "this is a trainer and it doesn’t have the extra value that you’re putting on it". I said something like: "Is this a curse or a blessing?" I didn’t say this is a curse.

Some of the people in the room may not have liked it, but the fact is that everything we do has consequences, and grown-ups must be able to look at the consequences of their work. There’s no policy implication in that.

You said Labour wanted to ban gambling ads before the 9pm watershed.

We’ve put down an amendment to a bill because we think there should be a review of this. There are two reasons for that. There’s a bit of a loophole with sports gamb­ling during sports programmes. And there is a problem with some bingo ads. So we’re calling for a review of this because there does seem to have been an explosion of it [gambling advertising].

That’s not a general criticism of the industry, that’s a concern about protecting children from gambling. I do think there is a difference.

The advertising industry believes it is an easy target. It argues advertising is just the messenger, it’s not inherently good or bad.

But I’m not criticising them. Nothing in what I’ve said is a criticism of advertising. We have rules already, and to look at whether they are working properly seems to me to be quite reasonable.

Do you not think it would be more effective to focus on regulating the gambling industry itself, rather than on its promotion?

Well, we’re doing that as well. This isn’t the only aspect. It’s not that advertising is being singled out in some particular way – it just isn’t.

Would Labour raise spending on public-health and information campaigns? It has been cut back under the coalition government.

That’s not my policy area, I can’t answer that question. But we do want to have another look at the way the Cabinet Office has been handing out the [advertising] contracts. We think that has not been done properly.

So you would want to review that?

Yes, definitely.

Do you think that Labour is at risk of damaging its reputation because it might look like it has an anti-business agenda?

I don’t think that’s true at all. To take the issue of the banks – and it’s the same with the energy companies – they are there to serve the rest of the economy. They need to be structured in ways which encourage investment, particularly into small businesses.

To redress how powerful institutions have been using their market power and look at the question of whether or not that has been in the interests of just the banks or of the whole economy and all citizens, I don’t think that’s anti-business.

In fact, it can be pro-business because we’re saying they’re not just putting pressure on consumers, they are also putting pressure on other businesses, and small business in particular.

Labour and advertising: uneasy bedfellows?

Did marketing help make a pair of Nike trainers so desirable that youths broke into shops across the UK to steal them? That’s what some audience members believed Goodman implied during a session at the recent Advertising Association Lead conference.

Goodman argues her remarks have been misinterpreted, but attendees on the day itself, including Labour supporters, were angered. Robert Senior, the Saatchi & Saatchi EMEA chief executive who took part in the debate with Goodman, said afterwards: "My sincere hope is that the views of Ms Goodman are not representative of the Labour Party – a case of poor casting with unintended consequences."

The WPP chief executive, Sir Martin Sorrell (pictured, below), meanwhile, wrote a robust defence of the industry in The Sunday Telegraph, saying Goodman’s remarks "are just the latest addition to the canon of ad-bashing".

Whether the remarks have been taken out of context or not, there’s certainly a perception in the industry that Labour is not particularly friendly towards the industry.

Many practitioners argue that advertising is merely a channel of communication, a messenger, and that if you want to change society’s values, you need to fix the root cause.

And while it is a big industry, it makes up only a small part of the wider media landscape. Surely films, TV programmes or BuzzFeed’s latest listicle have more impact on the national psyche, some argue.

One senior ad agency executive, however, says the industry does have a serious question to answer about its role in promoting an acquisitive mindset: "It’s not like we just advertise the opening of the village fête. Advertising creates demand and makes people feel they are not keeping up. It’s insidious. Add to that the attention-deficient nation, and Helen Goodman makes some good points. If there was no aggressive promotion of consumer goods, then the rioters wouldn’t be trying to steal the products."

He also argues it is disingenuous to say consumers are intelligent and therefore do not need to be protected from the effects of advertising: "It is a mass rank of bright, manipulative ad people against the bovine herd. I’m in the industry and I still see an ad for skinny jeans and think: ‘Oh, maybe my chipolata legs will look good squeezed into those.’"

But the relationship between Labour and the industry may be thawing. Last week, a spokeswoman for the Shadow Culture Secretary, Harriet Harman, told Campaign that the MP "looks forward to working with the industry as we develop our manifesto plans". And Goodman makes it clear in her interview here that she certainly did not intend to criticise adland.

Perhaps the industry needs to present itself to Labour in a different way, suggests the Thinkbox chief executive, Tess Alps, who attended the session.

Instead of focusing on advertising’s economic benefit, Alps believes the industry should promote its ability to make business more responsible.

"Advertising can help create a better society, and I don’t just mean by doing government or charity ads. This is about commercial brands that want to make a profit, but can offer consumers better products," she argues.