Ever since the Nixon/Kennedy debate in the US and the Saatchis’
’Labour Isn’t Working’ poster here, there has been a lot written and
said about the advertising of politics.
But there’s been much less comment on the politics of advertising. I
don’t mean an analysis of how the 13,000 of us who work in the industry
vote, or the idle gossip about people, awards or agencies. I mean the
social, cultural values of the industry, its product and process, its
role, and the way it is seen by society and the people who use it.
US advertising man Bruce Barton once said advertising was the essence of
democracy. OK, this is rather overdoing it, but it underlines the fact
that, in a free society, advertising does allow for the open flow of
information and effective commercial competition.
Over the past decade, our business has flourished. We have been
operating in a business-friendly environment, deregulation and consumer
choice were given priority, and we saw an influx of new advertisers,
share offers, privatisations and an explosion in the number and range of
We also saw an explosion in consumption. Shopping is not quite the
national pastime as in the US, but our retail environment is now more
vibrant, diverse, and higher quality.
Advertising and consumption became media bedfellows. We became an
industry that was more publicly associated with the expenditure of
wealth than the creation of it. The public perception of our profession
has been driven by the output of that time, which was in part
superficial and aggressive, and also by the popular cliches of the
mid-80s. We all drove fast cars and indulged in expensive lifestyles; or
so they said.
Clearly, there has been a mood change in the country, with the election
result a function of that mood change, rather than the other way
Some see this change as a return to a more interdependent, rather than
individualistic, society. Others call it a dramatic re-definition of
long-held social distinctions and classifications.
I think it is all of these things and more. People have become more
sophisticated in their tastes - and more pluralist. It will be
interesting to see how we react. Ours is a relatively mature industry,
despite the profile and associations it achieved over the past 19 years,
and it will benefit us all to be seen as politically neutral, a creative
lubricant for a modern and competitive economy.
Indeed, some of our techniques, working practices and skills are now at
the forefront of political thinking and business practice, such as focus
groups, media presentation skills, or non-hierarchical partnerships.
The more fundamental recognition that long-term sustainable advantages
come not from efficient process management, but from creative
originality is also in vogue.
We are ideally suited to become the powerhouse of a creative
Not only are we leaders in our industry worldwide, we can be seen to
play an integral part in honing the competitive edge the UK needs. All
we need to do is rise to the challenge.
Steven Carter is chief executive of J Walter Thompson Europe.