It was with some astonishment that I discovered last week that both the
Daily Mail and the Daily Express had introduced self-imposed bans on
covering those sensational ‘shock horror’ poster stories. Hooray.
At last, I thought, here’s one part of the media that has rumbled how
some advertisers and agencies make a budget go further by stirring up a
fuss and maybe, if they’re lucky, getting banned.
As somebody who spends a lot of time dealing with enquiries from the
press, radio and TV about the advertising industry, it never ceases to
amaze me how easy it is to trick the media into doing those types of
The sequence of events goes like this. 1) An advertiser (funny how
they’re almost invariably those companies with a small budget of whom
you’ve never heard) sticks up a deliberately controversial poster, say
with strong images or naughty words. 2) A PR company is hired to claim
that the good citizens of Birmingham or Vauxhall are outraged or to tip
the media off. 3) One of the tabloids, often a willing accomplice, jumps
in with both feet (sometimes this happens before anybody’s actually seen
the poster). 4) Desperate not to be left behind, the rest of the media
pile in. 5) First in are the radio stations, anxious to fill all those
empty hours. Knowing that advertising is a good phone-in (i.e. cheap)
subject, they phone Campaign and demand reporters put aside at least 30
minutes to participate in the discussion. 6) The daily newspapers tut
tut about these dreadful advertisers, but print large pictures of the
offending poster, and ask really sharp questions like ‘So will all this
publicity be bad for the advertiser?’ (You have to wonder sometimes,
Now, it would be foolish of me to claim that it was wrong of the media
to cover these stories. It’s as instinctive as Gazza gobbing. But, for
their part, the media should realise, as the Express and the Mail have,
how they’re being used. Equally, however, we have to recognise that
using PR to multiply the effect of your campaign is a perfectly
legitimate and sensible tactic. And if you can get your ad written and
talked about in the media, so much the better.
The problem, of course, comes when advertisers and agencies deliberately
and cynically set out to court controversy or to get themselves banned.
Individually, isolated examples of this don’t amount to much.
Collectively they do, with a consequent long-term effect on the public’s
view of advertising.
To my mind, there is only one practical solution, which is that all the
poster companies - and Mills and Allen and More O’Ferrall seem to be
dragging their feet at the moment - should use pre-vetting to weed out
the most likely offenders.
Naturally, people will cry ‘censorship’. But what’s the alternative? A
government that introduces statutory pre-vetting and regulation? I know
which I’d prefer.