SOAP BOX: I’m sorry, but we really have to talk politics

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.

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

media available.

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.