Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: Should British politicians be allowed to advertise on TV, as they do in America, to galvanise more people to vote?

A: A timely question; though I'm not convinced that political advertising would have the galvanising effect you suggest. Although there are few recorded examples of advertising campaigns dramatically shrinking demand for the product advertised, this could well be one of them.

It usually benefits everyone when competitive markets are finally allowed to advertise. Until 1984, for reasons that remain obscure, opticians were banned from advertising. There was little open competition, the range of frames available was limited and prices were high. From the moment that advertising was allowed, everything got better for everyone; everyone, that is, except for those complacent opticians who'd much enjoyed their protected positions and who greatly prospered as a result. So you can see that there are certain Parliamentary parallels.

But today, the entire political market is in disarray, so perhaps politicians should take their lead not from opticians but from the beleaguered bottled water industry. The new Speaker should immediately convene an all-party taskforce with their first responsibility to write a marketing brief for a multi-disciplinary campaign on behalf of politicians generically. (Funding to be provided from the Additional Costs Allowance budget, applications for which have shown an inexplicable downturn.)

Agencies would be invited to compete for this prestigious piece of business. Reward would be based entirely on achievement. Key performance indicators would include the elevation of politics as a respected profession above that of estate agents and a General Election turnout in excess of 60 per cent. The project would be codenamed Politicians Care!

The interesting bit would be an analysis of the differing reasons advanced by the agencies for their deeply regretted inability to take part.

Q: At an industry function the other day, I overheard someone say: "I see you've gone for the early mivvi!" What on earth did he mean?

A: No idea. I've only just found out what a bevvy is. Perhaps a mivvi is a milky bevvy - but there's not much call for them at industry functions, is there? Next ...

Q: Do you think clients, such as the BBC, or banks, such as Halifax, need to fear a public backlash if their ads look too expensive in the current recession?

A: It's not a lot to do with the public: it's more to do with those who like to speak for the public. There are a great many of them.

I think it's tiny turtles, isn't it? Once hatched on shore, they have to scuttle across sandy wastes before finding the sanctuary of the sea. Millions of them, with no shells yet. On the way, 98 per cent of them are gobbled up by rapacious seabirds. Only two out of every 100 survive.

It's the same with ads. Thousands are hatched every year - but before they can be exposed to public view, they have to scuttle through the approval process. Both internally and externally, adland's rapacious seabirds are ready to strike. Advertising ideas are as vulnerable as tiny turtles. No shells yet: they have no strength and no experience. They have only an innocent fragility. They are easy prey.

In any review of any ad, the critics have all the best words. One of the best is the word risk. "I'm sure you'd agree, Nigel, that in the current economic climate, there's a real risk that anything that looks too obviously extravagant could provoke a serious public backlash." In response, the proponents can only talk feebly about cut-through and courage. The few ideas that survive go on to run a gauntlet called research. The public never gets a chance to express its opinion. Another tiny turtle bites the dust.

Q: Why is it that recessions seem to be good for agency start-ups?

A: Recessions make people, and that includes clients, re-examine all their most comfortable arrangements. Everything is scrutinised and all relationships challenged. What yesterday was compatibility is suddenly complacency. Who but a start-up can guarantee a client the undivided attention of everyone on the letterhead at a surprisingly advantageous price? The unspeakable truth about recessions, of course, is that they're actually quite good for lots of things and lots of people - other than those for whom they're utterly devastating.

- "Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4683.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP