Media Forum: Is it time media cut the clutter?

Should the media industry be more sensitive to the environment?

In their more reflective moments, most rural landowners like to think they are a bit like David Archer, the worthy and virtuous lead in Radio 4's soap The Archers. People who use the country's motorway network on a regular basis could be forgiven, however, for seeing them somewhat differently - not as Goody Two Shoes Archer but as his ducking and diving Ambridge antithesis, Eddie Grundy.

How else to explain all those billboards that have been springing up in roadside fields - a trend that has been alarming environment groups, most notably the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which last week published the damning results of a recent survey.

The pressure group reckons there is now one billboard for every three miles of fast road in the UK. Far from acting as custodians of the nation's countryside, farmers are adding ever more blots to an already-scarred landscape.

But actually, you can hardly blame the Grundys of this world for succumbing to the wads of bank-notes that the ad industry insists on thrusting under their noses. And it's not hard to argue that this is a problem for the media sector rather than yet another story of greed and complacency in the shires.

And, after all, hasn't advertising been a blot on other landscapes in recent memory? Take, for instance, the fuss over fly-posting. It has taken legal action to rein that in. Not to mention all the clutter that legitimate "ambient media" has created: everything from petrol pumps to pissoirs.

Or the ridiculous advertising clutter on the web. Not to mention spam.

Or direct mail. Or the blizzard of inserts you have to shake out of your Sunday newspaper before you can face reading it.

Should the ad community be more sensitive to all sorts of environmental issues? Alan James, the chief executive of the Outdoor Advertising Association, argues that broadly, it is mindful of such things and, indeed, he cites the outdoor industry's stance on various forms of abuse, including this latest one. "We've been alerting people for weeks that this particular situation was about to blow," he states. "There do seem to be companies operating in this area that give the impression this is a legitimate activity. We have no authority over them. We are not the police. But our members have indicated that this is not an area they would get involved in."

But clearly this, like fly-posting, is an area that legitimate mainstream advertisers have been toying with. Forget the legal arguments for the moment: isn't this another case of advertisers damaging their own cause?

On the other hand, Ian Twinn, the director of public affairs at ISBA, argues, British advertising and media markets have a better track record in taste and restraint than their US or continental European counterparts.

He comments: "If you overburden an environment, it simply stops working and if something stops working, you don't tend to use it. But more importantly, perhaps, it is well known that you put off consumers if you advertise in an irresponsible way. Most marketing directors don't need much persuading that you don't use media that damage your brand values. I know in the past some advertisers have felt that certain media can give them an edginess but the truth is that if you are a major corporation, people regard what you do in a completely different way."

Pete Edwards, the Starcom managing partner, agrees there are fundamental issues at stake. He states: "Most media environments are getting increasing cluttered, which means in turn that it is more difficult to achieve cut-through. So you can understand why people want to push the boundaries. The question must always be about whether what you are doing is relevant to the consumer. If all you are doing is using spaces that people have never used before, regardless of their relevance, then by definition it has become clutter."

Mark Holden, the executive planning director of PHD, agrees. He believes a large part of the problem is that many media agencies got into the habit of recommending high-cut-through campaign components, often viral or ambient, whether there was a real rationale for them or not. He concludes: "We will only use ambient when it is really and truly needed. Previously, it would be recommended almost as a matter of routine because it was assumed every campaign needed a particular form of cut-through. And in cost-per-thousand terms, these things can be very expensive. So, yes, I think this is something people could be more careful about."

YES - Alan James, chief executive, Outdoor Advertising Association

"Unfortunately, when this sort of story comes along, there is a rub-off on the outdoor industry. We have been consistent in our position on this. I think the industry has a good track record in response to this issue."

YES - Ian Twinn, director of public affairs, ISBA

"I don't think anyone wants to see the sort of clutter here you see in the US. If you're talking about posters in particular, in many states you travel from town to town along corridors of advertising. It's also an issue of effectiveness."

YES - Pete Edwards, managing partner, Starcom

"If you irritate people, it becomes counterproductive. We need to think constantly about issues such as this and need to be self-regulating. If we're foolish, there will be a backlash and others will step in to regulate on our behalf."

YES - Mark Holden, executive planning director, PHD

"No one advertiser or agency will refrain from doing something tactical because they begin to worry it might increase clutter. But they might if they thought consumers were becoming tired of it and it was impacting negatively on their brand."

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