OPINION: Ad industry needs a plan of action to combat the V-chip

Mark Lund believes that offense is the best defence. Just as long as entertainment levels remain high in ads, then the public will chose to keep ads breaks intact

Mark Lund believes that offense is the best defence. Just as long as

entertainment levels remain high in ads, then the public will chose to

keep ads breaks intact

OK, hands up, who doesn’t know what the V-chip is?

You should. In the past three weeks Campaign alone has devoted four

articles to it and all the major broadsheets and other marketing press

have given it considerable, anguished space.

However, for those of you who’ve been on Mars or eating beef during the

last month, let me remind you. It’s an electronic gizmo that threatens

to become Canada’s most famous export since frostbite. What it does is

to sit in the back of tellies and change channel when a programme that

is too violent, sexy or linguistically challenged comes on.

But maybe you don’t care. Certainly, that seems to be the evidence so


Last month, in the splendour of the Department of National Heritage, the

Advertising Association hosted a seminar on the subject. Lord Inglewood,

the minister responsible for seeing the Broadcasting Bill through the

House of Lords, was there, the US experts were there and all the

important broadcast media were there. There was even a bloke from the

National Viewers and Listeners’ Association. What there weren’t were

advertising agencies. Of the 100 or so people a grand total of three

represented the cutting edge of the communications industry.

This display of indifference and ennui is perhaps occasioned by the

name. If it were called an A-chip agencies might be more interested. And

make no mistake, they should be. Because in this case ‘A’ is for

advertising; by far the most vulnerable target in the V-chip’s sights is

our bread and butter - the ad breaks themselves.

We know that people zap ads, particularly if the first in break looks

dull and if the remote control falls easily to hand. But still the

majority don’t, because they can’t be bothered or they might miss the

start of the next programme. The V-chip, though, is a zapper with a

perfect memory - that never lets up. If programmed to cut out

commercials, which is as easy as cutting out full-frontal nudity or

chainsaw atrocities, it will never let another one through until it is


This is why agencies should be paying attention. The V-chip is the

single biggest enemy commercials have faced since the advent of the

remote and the VCR. It is an oft-quoted maxim that ‘technologies change

people’s lives not governments’ and the V-chip is a perfect example of


So, what should agencies do, other than pay attention? There is little

possibility of an advertising lobby on its own reversing what is quite

likely to be an irresistible bandwagon for politicians of the soundbite


In the run-up to a general election it is hard to imagine that one of

the two main parties will not take up the V-chip to help establish a

‘decency/protect the children’ platform. Already, David Alton, the

Liberal Democrat MP, has included it in his amendment to the

Broadcasting Bill.

There could doubtless be an attempt to make ad breaks an unavoidable

part of commercial television. But there is no great history of

legislators loving advertising and, with a Labour government likely,

this is an implausible moment for the affair to begin.

The single greatest defence British advertising has is what it has

always had - its inherent quality. People will programme ads out if they

don’t want them in. If, in other words, they can see no benefit of

information or entertainment in keeping them within their repertoire of

viewing. At the moment I believe that people watch ads on telly mostly

because they want to. The pressure is now really on to keep the V-chip,

and the on/off switch, at bay.