Why It's Time To Fight For Advertising

LONDON - Join the campaign to defend advertising freedoms

Action For Ads campaign
Action For Ads campaign
Britain's ad industry is being threatened as never before. Hard-won freedoms have been relentlessly eroded and there is no end in sight to these attacks. The time has come to say enough is enough.
Which is why Campaign has secured the support of the Advertising Association, the IPA and ISBA in calling on the Government to stop an industry it professes to admire for its world-beating talent being rendered powerless and impotent by needless restrictions.
This week, we ask all those working in marketing communications, and those concerned about its future welfare, to put their names to our online petition ( click here ) . It calls on the Government to recognise the importance of the industry to the UK economy, and to resist further unnecessary restrictions to responsible advertising.
Five years ago, the Fat Lady "sang" on a Silk Cut poster marking the end of tobacco promotion. If things continue as they are, how long will it be before somebody thinks of re-employing her ample charms?
Only now it might be to bring down the curtain on all ads deemed responsible for thickening Britain's collective waistline and clogging its arteries.
The notion is not as far-fetched as it seems. If the preservation of tobacco advertising was always going to be a lost cause (mainly because adland's heart was never really in it), there is a belief that Ofcom's crackdown on the TV advertising of food and drink to children would not have been so Draconian had the industry been louder and more united in making its case.
Too often it has allowed pressure groups to set the agenda. So much so that the term "junk" is now applied to a wide range of products, whether they deserve it or not. Even direct marketing is now popularly referred to as the "junk mail" business.
Emboldened by their victory, the lobbyists are in no mood to halt. For many of them, the battle against obesity merely disguises an extremist view of advertising, which is perceived as an instrument of capitalist exploitation.
As Michael Grade, ITV's executive chairman, told last month's ISBA conference: "The lobbyists will be back for more, whether it be food, alcohol or who knows what."
At the end of last month, the IPA hosted a meeting attended by some 60 people representing all the major trade bodies as well as senior client figures and agency chiefs.
Their discussions focused on two questions. How does the industry speak with one voice against the threats to it? And how should its fightback be resourced?
"The industry has been too defensive and lacking in confidence," Peta Buscombe, the AA's chief executive, acknowledges. "We need to rethink our language and our audience."
How did it come to this? How is it that the industry is under siege as never before? Not long ago, it seemed the threats to advertising had at least been contained, if not disappeared.
Before Labour returned to Government in 1997, the party was dedicated to the abolition of the Advertising Standards Authority and the introduction of statutory controls.
However, when the election winners realised what an administrative nightmare this would create, they opted
for a more pragmatic approach and agreed self-regulation should remain.
Moreover, the industry thought it had reached an understanding with ministers over tobacco advertising. Labour had a manifesto commitment to ban it and, in truth, adland would have wished for a less vulnerable position from which to fight for freedom.
Tobacco was the industry's Faustian pact. It allowed agencies to produce some of the most creative advertising ever seen. Yet there was no escaping the fact that it was promoting a serial killer responsible for 120,000 UK deaths a year. Had Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the nation to tobacco today, there's little doubt its sale and the advertising of it would have been banned immediately.
A deal seemed the obvious way out. The ad industry conceded over tobacco, believing that by "ring-fencing" it, other advertising freedoms could be preserved.
We treated tobacco as a pariah industry," Hamish Pringle, the IPA's director-general, recalls. "We believed we'd done a deal with the Government and that there would be no ‘domino effect'. That has not been the case."
Some within the advertising community believe the industry has fallen victim to political considerations and the need for New Labour to keep its left-wing supporters happy when it could no longer offer them full-bloodied socialism.
"It's been the equivalent of tossing sweets to children," a leading industry consultant remarks. "Just a few things to chew on to keep them quiet. First it was foxhunting, then obesity.
"It gave Old Labour the chance to show its ideological opposition to big business as personified by advertising. No matter that the obesity problem has far more to do with lack of exercise or that people are consuming as many calories as they did 30 years ago."
If the theory is true, then New Labour's decision to indulge Old Labour has already proved not only costly (broadcasters stand to lose about £23 million as a result of the new rules on TV food advertising) but infectious.
The chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, now talks of "aggressive" advertising to children while the prime minister, Tony Blair, has floated the idea of legislation curbing the promotion of snack foods and alcohol.
Buscombe says she was astonished to hear the Government minister Hilary Benn on Radio 4's Any Questions? blaming "awful things like advertising" for widespread depression among young people. "It is shocking that a man in his position in the Cabinet could hold such views," she says.
Now, Baroness Thornton, a Labour peer, has put a Bill before the Lords calling for a total ban on the TV advertising of food with high fat or sugar content, irrespective of the audience. The Bill has no realistic chance of success, but industry leaders are in no doubt that it is an indirect warning from the Government that the pressure on them will be unrelenting.
With Whitehall currently spending more than £300 million a year on campaigns (it is the country's third-biggest advertiser), small wonder that the industry is finding it hard to decode its mixed messages.
"The Government's attitude is schizophrenic," Pringle declares. "It says it supports the creative industries, which it hails as the saviour of UK Plc, while it continues to bash us."
Not that a Conservative Party win at the next general election would necessarily take the heat off the industry. The party has a record of legislation controlling advertising (particularly in the financial services area, and most of it at the behest of the European Parliament) dating back to the era of ex-prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
More recently, the Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, has hit out at advertising for "sexualising" children, while the party's conference last year agreed the time had come to consider a ban on marketing to children.
Then there's Baroness Judith Wilcox, the shadow minister for trade and industry and consumer protection. In a dramatic departure from the old Tory script, she tells the latest edition of the National Consumer Federation's newsletter: "We should be bolshie. We can afford to be difficult and high profile in our criticisms of both commerce and government."
Some industry leaders believe all this is the thin end of the wedge. It took just over 40 years for the first restrictions on tobacco advertising in Britain to evolve into a total ban. Now they ask if the freedoms to advertise food will be chipped away in similar fashion, but far more quickly.
"We've become complacent about single-issue consumer activists," an industry lobbyist claims. "They get listened to sympathetically, and what they say is often taken as gospel,without any proper investigation of their claims."
Often, it has been expedient for politicians to take such claims at face value. "What MP is going to blame their constituents for not bringing up their children properly?" Buscombe, a former Conservative frontbench spokesperson in the Lords, asks. "You can lose elections doing that."
Meanwhile, the industry is being forced to defend itself on a growing number of fronts. The lifting of ad restrictions on casinos, betting shops and online gaming in September are bound to raise fresh controversies. So will digital's onward march. How does the ASA decide what constitutes "advertising" in this largely uncharted territory? And how does it impose sanctions on miscreants?
Small wonder that events in the UK are being watched intently elsewhere, not least by the World Federation of Advertisers' European Action Group, which represents advertisers' interests before the main EU institutions. The Brussels-based European Association of Communications Agencies is also monitoring events.
In the US, where the ad industry long regarded the rule-heavy UK market as "infected", agencies and advertisers find they are no longer immune.
In mainland Europe, the knock-on effect of what is happening in Britain may soon be felt. "The Ofcom ruling will reverberate across the EU states," Pringle predicts. "Lobby groups appreciate the UK is their test market. So a lot of their resource is being poured into it."
Faced with this kind of wide-ranging threat, advertisers have not always grasped the nettle early enough and have been left to rue the consequences.
Three years ago, ad industry lobbyists quietly sounded out car manufacturers about cutting back on the promotion of 4x4 vehicles. Opposition to the gas-guzzlers was growing, and it was suggested lowering the advertising profile might serve longer-term interests.
The answer was no. "That's the mentality we're having to deal with," a senior official of an industry trade body sighs. "So much of the controversy now surrounding 4x4s might have been avoided if the issue had been discussed earlier."
It is debatable if the industry is doing itself any favours by being less of the non-conformist it once was, and being over-preoccupied with winning politicians' hearts and minds. "We can't just keep whispering in ears," an insider says. "It doesn't work any more."
Indeed, some would like a return to the kind of combative relationship with the Government as personified by Lord McGregor, the ASA's chairman between 1980 and 1990.
Once, he was summoned by Lord Young, then the Tory trade and industry secretary, to be warned that unless advertisers stopped featuring public figures without their permission, the Government would close the ASA and impose statutory regulation. Legend has it that McGregor told Young (ever so politely) to go forth and multiply.
Would the incoming ASA chairman, the former Labour culture secretary Chris Smith, show similar backbone in such a confrontation? It's an open question.
Philip Circus is the former IPA legal affairs director and industry adviser for 30 years and the longest-serving member of the rule-making Committee of Advertising Practice. He says: "The ASA and CAP feel like they are part of the Establishment. Of course we must have a relationship with the Government, but it must never become so cosy that it undermines the system we've always sought to protect."
The tipping point, according to some industry onlookers, came in 2004 when the Government extended the ASA's remit to TV. The change turned the watchdog into a hybrid organisation. Not only was it to continue policing the self-regulatory system covering non-broadcast media, but also inherited the statutory powers of the former Independent Television Commission.
"The danger is that non-broadcast media will come under statutory control by default," Circus warns. "If we're not very careful, statutory controls will move beyond TV into other areas by a process of osmosis."
Indeed, there is mounting concern that the Government is taking ASA and CAP acquiescence for granted. "Just listen to Caroline Flint, the public health minister," one industry leader says. "She already talks as if she thinks she can tell us what to do."
What, then, is the industry to do to regain control of its own destiny? For a start, it has to speak with one voice.
This has not happened. Politics and turf wars too often prevent it, while complacency has led to vulnerable sectors galvanising themselves only when necessary. Only the Portman Group, set up by the leading alcohol producers to promote responsible drinking, has been successful in showing the way forward by keeping those calling for an alcohol ad ban on the back foot.
ISBA has already made significant moves towards creating a more united front. A significant number of its members already belong to bodies such as the Food & Drink Federation and the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders. Malcolm Earnshaw, ISBA's current director-general, has been forging closer links to these hugely influential organisations and his, successor, Mike Hughes, can be expected to continue the process.
"We have to get off the back foot, but our intentions shouldn't be misread," Hughes said recently. "We aren't asking for a blank cheque, only that our views should be fully represented."
But what of other initiatives? Buscombe says the key challenge is for the industry to reclaim control of the agenda and to show not only how important it is to the economy, but also how self-restrained and responsible it is. The rigour applied to devising advertising codes would put many Parliamentary law-makers to shame, she declares.
Circus puts the challenge in blunter terms: "The self-regulation system is ours. We own it. It's up to us and nobody else to decide what's right for it."