Opinion: Perspective - Why adland needs to be shaken out of its inertia

This week, Citroen and Euro RSCG had their creative knuckles rapped by the Advertising Standards Authority over CO2 emission claims.

Bear with me. A recent Euro ad reckons that the C4 model produces the lowest levels of CO2 in its class. A couple of consumers beg to differ. And then you're into the sort of teeth-gnashing syntactical argument that besets so many ASA adjudications. Green petrol-heads have argued that the Toyota Prius, the Renault Megane hatchback and the BMW1 are all in the same class and all have lower levels.

So what is "class"? The Department For Transport's Act On CO2 website uses the What Car? definition of class ("small family", "estate" etc). But Euro has further refined these definitions by selecting diesel and automatic cars only. Except that the ASA reckons this is a bit of a sleight of hand, and that viewers would define "class" in its broadest sense. So the ad's been banned, at least in its current form.

Why should the rest of us care? Green claims are getting wallpapery anyway, and it's no surprise that in many cases the claims and best intentions are ahead of the reality.

But the ASA's ruling comes as the European parliament has approved proposals to force car advertisers to devote 20 pert cent of their advertising creative to information on CO2 emission levels. That's one-fifth of every press ad, radio ad, poster, TV commercial ... And not only will it be a creative straightjacket (imagine Skoda "cake" or Volkswagen "night drive" with a bloody big health warning bolted on to the end), but as Euro's Citroen example perfectly illustrates, the whole area is a potential minefield that is likely to leave consumers more confused than informed.

The EP vote doesn't mean much yet, but will influence the European Commission's stand on the whole issue when it makes its own proposals in December. There's a long way to go before the proposals are enforced in the UK, and there's no guarantee that they ever will be. But if the ad industry displays the sort of indolence about the issue of advertising freedoms that it has done so far, the prognosis is not good.

2007 has been the year that adland was called to the ring to defend its lifeblood; instead it seems to have gone into hiding, leaving the industry bodies to fight with little support.

Perhaps too many agency chiefs know they won't be around to suffer the consequences of dramatic new advertising restrictions and, therefore, don't care. Perhaps too many are absorbed enough simply steering their own companies through the next few quarters and wrestling with the fundamental structural issues of today. Perhaps everyone's hoping someone else is worrying about it for them. But one thing's for sure: the blows are coming thick and fast. Food, cars, air travel, alcohol, toy advertising ... billions of pounds of adspend are coming under regulatory fire. Where's adland's fightback?

It's legal to sell it. It doesn't kill you. In fact, it can be a lifesaver. But if MPs get their way, you won't be able to advertise it.

What is the latest advertising "evil" that politicians are trying to ban? Baby milk. Advertising milk for babies under six months is already prohibited, now there's pressure to ban the category altogether.

Oh, I know baby milk manufacturers don't spend much on advertising, their brands don't get creative juices flowing, and they're unlikely to be the crown jewels on any agency client list, but there's a principle under threat here that should send a chill through the whole industry.

On what grounds should a free market tolerate a ban on the advertising of a perfectly legal and decent product? One argument is that the money spent on advertising baby milk overshadows the amount the government spends promoting breast-milk. I'm sure the ad industry could help solve that particular problem.


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