Opinion: Perspective - Advertising can't take blame for environmental ills

Imagine that the bottom fifth of this page was plastered with a sober warning that the contents of the other four-fifths could pose a serious threat to your health.

The lure of the wise words of the wonderful Mr Bullmore notwithstanding, you might be tempted to quickly turn the page.

Well, the European Commission is poised to enshrine new rules forcing car manufacturers to post details of their carbon dioxide emissions and miles-per-gallon stats on their advertising, with the "warnings" required to occupy as much as 20 per cent of any commercial message.

And the EC's demands are unlikely to stop there. Restrictions on the use of certain images that appear to endorse environmentally unfriendly motoring - such as big gas-guzzlers cutting up the countryside, or powerful sports cars underlining a boy-racer mentality - are also being considered.

For agencies to whom car clients offer a great creative opportunity and a nicely plump income, and for those media owners who rely on car advertising as a backbone of their revenue, the EC's proposals could be catastrophic.

In the current economic climate, car advertising looks vulnerable anyway; restrictions on advertising and marketing could be just the nudge motoring marketers need to withdraw budgets. And for an ad industry already under siege from the anti-obesity lobbyists, any plans to restrict car ads are another clear signal that advertising is being held to account for some of the biggest issues of our age.

While the political system has so far failed to come up with a meaningful policy on climate control, curbing advertising is a clearly being seen as a very visible - if ultimately ineffective - response.

Of course, car manufacturers themselves are already making a big play of their environmental credentials where they can, and there are undoubted competitive advantages to be gained from being "greener" than rival marques. But would any of them welcome Draconian restrictions that force all car ads to enumerate their effect on the environment? I doubt it.

So the advertising and motor industries are joining forces to lobby against the proposals from Brussels. Just as there was no unequivocal evidence that the health warnings on cigarette ads ever made a blind bit of difference to people's smoking habits, so there's absolutely no proof that similar warnings on car ads will affect which cars we buy.

The only sure thing if the proposed regulations get the go ahead is that motor manufacturers will put their adspend under greater scrutiny. And we might find that the media which is reliant on car ad revenue struggles to fund the rich diversity of content that we currently enjoy.

Finally, the ad industry has the opportunity to make a positive contribution to the obesity debate.

With M&C Saatchi and Manning Gottlieb OMD already on board for the £75 million Department of Health's anti-obesity drive, adland can now harness the power of advertising to quell its critics.

Except, of course, that those critics will be scrutinising the anti-obesity campaign so closely it will hurt, and expectations for the campaign will no doubt run higher than it can ever be possible to achieve. As Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy's Danny Brooke-Taylor says on page 11: "Advertising won't make you fat and it won't make you thin."

So M&C might be celebrating its win, but the challenge and the potential downsides are enormous. It doesn't help that the anti-obesity push will come as the credit crunch really starts to bite. Talk to the psychologists and there's a view that when times are tight, we're likely to exercise less and seek comfort in (cheap) food.

Ads can help, and great ads can help disproportionately. But they can't, alone, solve the problem. It's vital the DoH ensures that message gets across too.


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