Tom Watson's speech in full: Help make the UK healthier or we will regulate you

In his powerful address to the Advertising Association's Lead conference, the MP discussed how brands must do more to tackle unhealthy advertising aimed at children. Read the full speech below.

Tom Watson's speech in full: Help make the UK healthier or we will regulate you

It’s a pleasure to be here with you today to contribute to your conference on trust, trade and transformation.

People often ask me why I chose to become an MP. The honest answer, the truthful answer, the answer you can trust, the answer I rarely give, is that I wasn’t very good at anything else.

One of the things I wasn’t very good at was advertising. For a very brief period in the late 1980s, I was a junior account executive in a small Chelsea-based agency that operated on the margins of creativity and the seedy world of direct mail.

I wasn’t very good at the job – but don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved it. I loved the craic. I loved the deadlines and the pitches. I loved the drinking culture. I loved the wild creatives who kept odd hours and were theatrically temperamental. I loved the absolute bullshit of it all.

And, in all honesty, in hindsight, I realise only now, whilst I write this speech to the Advertising Association, that the experience has helped me greatly in my job as a politician.

My short career in advertising

I look back on my very brief and unsuccessful time in advertising and remember all the characters and their portentous claims. I still have committed to memory the first sentence definition of advertising in Ogilvy on Advertising: "I do not regard advertising as entertaining or an art form but as a medium of information."

You see, that’s why I failed. For me, the short-lived advertising career was nothing but entertaining.

And I got obsessional about it for a very short period of time.

I still have Scientific Advertising by Claude C Hopkins on my bookshelf. Claude, who tells us that "The only purpose of advertising is to make sales. It is profitable or unprofitable according to its measurement".

It was Claude who also told me that "the average person worth cultivating has too much to read" – beautifully absolute in his certainty, but it stuck in my mind to such a degree that, in 30 years of writing local political leaflets, I’ve always tried to keep the word count below 160 on the page.

And I think that intersection between advertising and politics is why I find what you do so interesting.

The words we use convey powerful stories – but only if the right words are assembled in the right order on the page. And in a so-called "post-truth" world, the need for advertising to be "legal, clean, honest and truthful" has never resonated more strongly with the public.

I’m reminded of the great Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin – one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated prime ministers of the last century – who wrote "Words are the currency of love and friendship, of making and marketing, of peace and war. Nations are bound and loosed by them. Three or four simple words can move waves of emotion through the hearts of multitudes like great tides of the sea: 'Lest we forget', 'Patriotism is not enough'."

And that’s why this failed advertising executive loves your industry. Ignore David Ogilvy. The very best of what you do isn’t just information. It’s art. Of sorts.

Now, on transformation. Last year, I had a life-changing transformation which has made me fitter, faster, happier and given me more energy and focus than ever before.

It’s an experience that has given me a different perspective on the work you do, so I’d like to share some thoughts about that with you today.

Some of the things I’m going to say may sound tough. But it will be said in a spirit of great respect and concern for an industry I greatly admire.

Advertising’s benefits to UK plc

But first, I want to talk about the great of our UK industry.  

For every pound spent on advertising, £6 is added to our economy. A million jobs across the UK depend on you, with more than half of advertising jobs based outside London. The UK is the fourth-largest advertising market after the USA, China and Japan.

That is all good news. Great news, in fact. And Labour wants to do everything we can to support your success.

But of course there are challenges too.

The fourth industrial revolution is changing the way every sector of our economy operates, advertising included.

Digital advertising is booming. The big winners are platforms like Facebook and Google. The big losers are organisations like local newspapers, which can no longer rely on diminishing "off the page" ad revenues.

Data-driven, targeted advertising is more important than ever before. We’ve seen claims that presidential elections and referendums have been won and lost through so-called "dark ads".

We’ve seen major ethical concerns about adverts being screened next to hateful, dangerous or abusive content.

I can see why you’ve focused "trust, trade and transformation" today.

A few words about Brexit

But before I talk about the Ts, I better mention the B word that no speaker will be able to avoid today: Brexit.

I can’t help thinking of the words on that infamous bus and wondering whether political advertising needs greater regulation. And Baldwin’s observation on words: "Nations are bound or loosed" by them.

And I know that your industry, like many others, needs from this process, stability, certainty, reassurance.

But that is the one thing the government has completely failed to provide.

Last night, we had a marathon voting session in parliament. Unfortunately, rather than solving anything, it’s left us even more confused than before.

The prime minister is going back to Brussels to ask for something the EU has ruled out and Theresa May herself spent the last four months ruling out.

Ken Clarke said during the debate yesterday that this is a "unique political crisis". He is right. And it’s hard to see a way out.

I’m not sure if this dud deal is going to get through parliament. Which means we need a new deal, which somehow can command a majority of the House, or we face the hard reality of an election, a public vote or crashing out with no deal.

I wish I could give you the ready-made solution in words as powerful as those spoken by prime minister Baldwin. But I’m afraid the words of that great advertising copywriter Fay Wheldon are more relevant for this government: "Nothing happens, and nothing happens, and then everything happens."

The good and bad about the advertising of the past

I’ve explained that I’ve always been fascinated by advertising.

The words of advertising often enter the language of our daily conversation. It can shape our culture and thinking.

I love it that Fay Weldon came up with the phrase "Go to work on an egg".

It’s no wonder that many famous authors and film-makers began life in the advertising industry.

I love it that the author who wrote "What's real and what's true aren't necessarily the same" in Midnight’s Children also wrote "Naughty but nice" in a cream cake ad.

I’m sure that you’ll all know who these people on the screen are. Famous copywriters, now legends… F Scott Fitzgerald, Salman Rushdie, Fay Weldon, Dr Seuss, Terry Gilliam.

But though adverts and their creators might be brilliant, advertising doesn’t always get it right.

And that’s where organisations like the Advertising Association have such an important role to play in building, standing up for, defending truth and trust.

Looking through historic adverts and judging them through contemporary cultural values is not particularly productive. These ads weren’t right in the 1950s, and they almost look life spoofs now.

But they help me illustrate how important it is, particularly in the new context of information abundance and fake news, that what you say is accurate, proportionate and, well, truthful.

I guess I’ve got a creative brief for you today: to address one of the themes of this conference – the issue of trust

It’s been a bad year for politics in the UK, perhaps the worst in my lifetime. But, last year, politicians were given a small relative boost. For once, we didn’t come bottom of the Ipsos Mori "veracity poll" of most trusted figures.

That’s because Ipsos Mori included advertising executives for the first time – so politicians came second last.

The one thing you can take from these figures is that, even in times of adversity, you can be reassured that it’s clever advertisers that are making politicians look good! 

Now I don’t want to put responsibility for all social ills in society on your industry, and I know that some say that advertising is just a mirror on our culture, but I think advertising can shape our culture more than it already does.

I don’t know what was going on in 1895 when this ad for cocaine tooth drops was written, but it must have been a hell of a year for someone.

And I’m sure this poor boy enjoyed his 7 Up drink in the 1950s, but I’m also sure that he will have died from one of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease or vascular dementia in the years since.

This advert looks appalling to us today, but I wonder which of today’s ads and promotions for sugary foods and drinks will seem as horrible to future generations? 

Advertising has awesome power

You see, advertising has an awesome power to shape our lifestyles. If it didn’t, people wouldn’t invest in it. And, though Claude C Hopkins said it’s just about the sales, I disagree. With that cultural and commercial power comes responsibility.

We face a public health crisis in the UK, and one of the main causes is refined sugar in our foods and drinks.

The results are horrific: 26,000 children hospitalised with rotten teeth. The worst obesity rates in western Europe. And the catastrophe of type 2 diabetes, taking lives and costing the NHS £10bn a year.

I’m making it my political mission to change this. That’s why I’ve launched an independent commission into how we reverse the increase in type 2 diabetes in a single parliament.

To do it, we need to think big – bigger than we ever have before.

That could mean more social prescribing by GPs, more taxes on sugar in food and drinks, and stronger regulations on packaging and labels, and the claims made by manufacturers.

But it’s also got to mean radical changes to how we market and advertise food, especially to young consumers.

Here are some current examples of what I would call irresponsible advertising [he showed Frosties, Nesquik and Coco Pops packets on the large screen behind him].

Before anyone tells me this is packaging and not advertising, let me tell you what they are: they are billboards on table tops aimed at tiny tots.

And, because of that, they should be included in the self-regulatory arrangements for the industry.  

These products are packed full of sugar, with little nutritional value.

Even if a child had the recommended portion of Frosties, they’d be eating more than half their daily allowance of sugar before they’ve even got to school.

And if they ate a bowl the size of the one that’s depicted on the front of the pack, they’d be exceeding their daily sugar allowance in one sitting.

For children under 10, cereal is their single biggest source of free sugar intake.

When we have a third of children leaving primary school overweight or obese, when teenage diabetes is rising by 70%, we’ve got to ask ourselves – is this still acceptable? I don’t think it is.

Facing up to an unpalatable truth about advertising today

The unpalatable truth for the Advertising Association, that represents the interests of the industry to government, is that some sectors of the advertising industry have played a part in getting us here.

Advertising has contributed to making us a nation overweight, unhealthy and addicted to sugar, and the industry has got to play a part in getting us out of this mess. And it’s in your self-interest to do this, if the Ipsos Mori survey on trust is anything to go by.  

So when it comes to high-sugar products like Coco Pops, my argument to you today is: get that monkey off our packs.

I want you to find a way to help us get healthier. Get cartoon characters off adverts for high-sugar foods. Help us kick our sugar habit.

If you don’t find a way to do it, then I promise you that the next Labour government will.

If you are not convinced of the need for change already, I want to show you a photo that I was sent by a paediatric dentist, Claire Stevens, from the University Dental Hospital in Manchester, just this week.

This is a picture Claire took of the rotten teeth she removed from children during a single afternoon in surgery in Manchester.

It sometimes seems an abstract fact that dental problems are the main reason that children aged five to nine are admitted to hospital.

But this picture is the reality – the truth about Britain’s sugar problem.

All because the food they are eating is rotting their teeth and making them ill.

The ad industry must do more to drive positive health change or face regulation

Advertising can have a positive role. Fay was right, after all. "Go to work on an egg" and not a box of obesity-inducing Kellogg’s cereals.

Advertising has the power to take sugar off the table and reinvent the British breakfast.

Just last week, the launch of ITV and Veg Power’s campaign to get more kids eating veg showed what creative collaboration between advertisers and health campaigners can achieve.

So, I don’t want you to go away thinking that I don’t like what you do. On the contrary, I love what you do. Most of what you do.

But this country needs your work to drive positive change that makes us healthy.

As Yuval Noah Harari wrote in the chapter on the post-truth world in his recent book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century:

"What images come to mind when you think about Coca-Cola? Do you think about young healthy people engaging in sports and having fun together? Or do you think about overweight diabetes patients laying in a hospital bed? Drinking lots of Coca-Cola will not make you young, will not make you healthy, will not make you athletic; rather it increases you chances of suffering from obesity and diabetes.

"Yet, for decades, Coca-Cola has invested billions of dollars in linking itself to youth, health and sports – and billions of humans believe in this linkage."

Everywhere our citizens look, on TV, online, on buses, on billboards, they are surrounded by adverts for foods laced with sugar. Those ads work.

They’ve sold us the idea that breakfast means a bowl of sugary cereal. They’ve sold us the thought that thirst can only be truly quenched by a sugary, fizzy drink.

So, today, I want you to think deeply about how advertising could help transform the lives of Britain's 3.7 million identified diabetics.

How could changes in your industry contribute to stopping kids leaving school obese. How we can get two million type 2 diabetics off their meds. How we can save the NHS 10% of its budget.

If you manage that creative brief, I promise that when Labour is next in government, I will be the biggest advocate for the UK advertising industry of any minister – an industry that did so much to shape my life and that of thousands of more talented and successful people than me.

Trust me on this.

Tom Watson is shadow secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport. This speech has been reproduced with permission of his office


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