Opinion: Perspective - Can adland change society and tame legislators?

Could this industry be about to make history? Proper, step-changing, nation-defining history. For the first time, ever, advertisers, agencies, media and the Government are about to come together to effect social transformation. Fingers crossed.

The Change4Life campaign to combat obesity was sketched out this week by the health secretary, Alan Johnson, and the bandwagon is clearly going full throttle. Tesco and Asda have pledged to cut prices on healthy food. By how much? For how long? Nationwide? The details are sketchy but the time for cynicism is not yet, please. For lard arses who can't waddle further than the corner shop for their daily diet: Spar, Costcutter and Londis are all joining in, running a test up North to offer better quality fruit and veg.

PepsiCo is donating some of its contracted sports stars to the cause. At ITV, Rupert Howell is masterminding a two-month on-air campaign to engage viewers in the lifestyle movement. And 12,000 grassroots operations, such as the British Heart Foundation, have signed up to the initiative. And, and, and ...

Meanwhile, the Advertising Association has formalised the Business4Life collective, which rallies agencies, advertisers and media owners behind the initiative. All told, the industry's contribution is expected to be worth more than £200 million over four years, rather less than the £335 million a year the Government reckons the commercial sector spends on promoting unhealthy food and drinks. But a great start.

And then there's the £75 million the Government has itself pledged to spend on an ad campaign through M&C Saatchi. It's a small sum when set against the enormity of the problem and it will be stretched very thinly over three years. So it's essential that all the partners work closely to ensure their contributions amplify the advertising message effectively. Co-ordination will be key, though that will undoubtedly be one of the most difficult things of all to pull off.

Anyway, whether or not the initiative works (and we must all hope that it does, of course), it's a fantastic and very public signal of big company conscience, something that's been all too rare lately, particularly as many companies' green agendas will be squeezed as recession bites.

Fans of the peerless Rory Sutherland's blog on our website will have read his thoughts on brand ethics (see page 5 for a summary). He's generous enough to suggest that most brands "have a spark of idealism somewhere in their DNA. You feel they are motivated to do what they do by something other than naked self-interest and greed: perhaps professional pride, social purpose, a belief in serving the community, the intrinsic pleasure of the job." Maybe, though, I'd argue that the economic events of recent weeks have served to undermine any general sense of "good profit" or "profit with a conscience". Out-of-control greed has been rather more in evidence.

I sat next to Sir John Sunderland, the former chairman of Cadbury, at the IPA Effectiveness Awards last week and we marvelled at the social responsibility on which the Cadbury business was founded. With its Quaker roots, its promotion of temperance, its investment in the housing, health and education of its employees, the Cadbury story reads more like a fairytale these days. And as a purveyor of lovely sweet, calorific things (all perfectly harmless, and indeed rather pleasurable as part of balanced lifestyle), Cadbury has become one of the bad guys in the heat of the obesity debate.

Yet, there's never been a more vital time for brands to display a social conscience. Putting weight and money behind a drive to improve lives is a shrewd way to acknowledge a shift in cultural values and, perhaps, justifying continued profits at a time when consumers are feeling the pinch of recession. And, of course, it's all good ammunition in the battle to stave off further advertising regulation. The Business4Life initiative comes just in time.

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