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 (brandrepublic.com/campaign). 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."
THE BIG CLAMPDOWN: AD BANS AND RULES
1962: Tobacco Advisory Committee agrees to take the glamour out of cigarette ads.
1965: Cigarette ads banned from TV.
1971: Tobacco manufacturers ordered to put health warnings on packs.
1986: Tobacco ads banned in cinemas.
1992: European Parliament votes for EU-wide ban on tobacco advertising.
1997: Labour Government elected with a manifesto pledge to outlaw tobacco ads.
2003: Tobacco ads on posters and in newspapers and magazines banned.
2004: In-pack promotions and direct marketing of tobacco products outlawed.
FOOD ADVERTISING TO CHILDREN
2003: Commons select committee concludes marketing of so-called junk food be controlled to prevent chronic diet-related disease.
2004: Government briefs Ofcom to consider new and more rigorous rules surrounding promotion of products high in fat, salt and sugar to children. Ofcom report finds TV food advertising has only a modest effect on children's food preferences.
2006: Ofcom recommends some form of restriction on TV food advertising is appropriate. Launches public consultation. Food Standards Agency calls for laws to prevent such food being advertised before the 9pm watershed. National Heart Forum threatens to take Ofcom to court over its decision not to consider changing the watershed for food advertising to children. Food and ad industries propose ban on food and drink advertising on TV at times when children are likely to be watching.Ofcom orders total ban on junk-food ads during children's programmes, as well as during adult programmes watched by large numbers of children.
2007: Ofcom announces restrictions will begin on 1 April. Baroness Thornton introduces Parliamentary Bill calling for a total ban on TV advertising of food with high fat and sugar contents, regardless of the type of audience watching.
2005: Gambling Act receives Royal Assent. Removes virtually all existing statutory restrictions on the advertising of lawful gambling in the UK from September.
2007: Previously, only "soft" gambling such as bingo, football pools and the National Lottery could be promoted.
CAP publishes rules for gambling ads. They must not:
- Encourage socially irresponsible behaviour.
- Exploit people's inexperience.
- Suggest gambling can solve financial problems.
- Link gambling with sex appeal.
- Appeal to children or young people.
2004: Cabinet Office identifies TV alcohol advertising as a potential factor in the fight against excessive drinking. Ofcom asks for views from interested parties on plans to tighten restrictions. It warns that 85 per cent of alcohol TV commercials would contravene proposed new rules. IPA warns proposals may be difficult to interpret and create uncertainty. Ofcom acts to curb what it claims have been persistent flouting of the regulations.
The rules require TV ads for alcoholic drinks:
- Not to appeal to under-18s.
- Not to show or imply tough or anti-social behaviour.
- Not to link alcohol with sexual success.
- Ensure that alcohol is shown being handled and served responsibly.
2007: Head of Royal College of Physicians calls for total ban of alcohol advertising to curb UK's growing drink problem.
THE ACTION FOR ADS MANIFESTO
Advertising's role in keeping people in jobs and oiling the wheels of Britain's economy ought to be self-evident. The ferocity of the relentless attacks now being made on the industry prove it is not.The tide can be turned only if agencies, clients and media owners set aside personal agendas in favour of a common one. This is what needs to be done. But first join the campaign. Register your support at brandrepublic.com/campaign.
1. An education programme must be initiated by the industry, under the AA's leadership, to make the public in general, and young people in particular, aware of advertising's importance to the economy.
2. Closer contacts must be forged between the industry and the Commons' Culture Media and Sport select committee to increase MPs' support for the business and stem the tide of uninformed Parliamentary criticism of it.
3. The AA must urge the Government to adopt a "joined-up" approach to advertising via regular round-table meetings between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Culture Media and Sport, which are jointly responsible for the creative industries.
4. The industry must press ministers to insist lobby groups provide more information about themselves before they are given a hearing. This must include their objectives, funding details and how their research has been conducted.
5. direct marketing programme must be rolled out to ensure that copies of the UK advertising codes - some of the most rigorous in the world - are known and understood by MPs, journalists and lobby groups.
- The Committee of Advertising Practice
CAP is the rule-maker for all broadcast and non-broadcast advertising in the UK. Representatives of the main industry trade bodies and media owners sit on its committees, whose main role is to keep the codes under constant review to ensure consumers are protected and that ads are decent and honest.
Chairman: Andrew Brown
Address: Mid City Place, 71 High Holborn, London WC1V 6QT
Tel: (020) 7492 2222
- The Advertising Standards Authority
The ASA has assumed a pivotal role as UK advertising's "policeman" since its remit was extended in 2004 to include control of broadcast advertising. It has no power to fine or take legal action against companies that break the codes, but can ask the Office of Fair Trading to act against rogue advertisers.
Director-general: Christopher Graham
Address: Mid City Place, 71 High Holborn, London WC1V 6QT
Tel: (020) 7492 2222
- Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre
Funded by the major terrestrial and satellite broadcasters, the BACC is responsible for clearing all TV commercials before they are screened. The watchdog has been taking a very strict line with alcohol ads, having previously come under fire for waving through ads that were later condemned for flouting the rules.
Editorial standards manager: Krisoffer Hammer
Address: 4 Roger Street, 2nd Floor, London WC1N 2JX
Tel: (020) 7339 4700
Defending advertising freedoms means knowing not only where the hostile fire is coming from, but also if the weaponry will inflict damage. This is not always easy to work out.
The attack may amount to no more than sniping from a tiny single-issue pressure group. But even that can be dangerous if the shots are well enough aimed to grab a few tabloid headlines.
A greater threat is posed by the bigger and PR-savvy organisations. They box clever and are well aware that having "consumer" in their title may get them in front of a time-poor minister who believes there are votes to be had by giving them a favourable hearing.
These groups have diverse agendas and constantly shifting affiliations. However, most currently march under the banner of the Children's Food Bill Alliance, named after the abortive attempt by the Labour MP Mary Creagh to win Parliament's approval for a total ban on "junk-food" advertising.
The coalition is committed to ending TV advertising before 9pm for foods judged to have high fat, salt and sugar content.
Here are some of the main players in the opposing camp.
The lobby group orchestrating the campaign against "junk-food" ads is among the most vociferous, extreme and PR-astute of the industry's adversaries. It wants the self-regulation system abolished and the ASA along with it.
Nobody personifies Sustain better than Richard Watts, who co-ordinates its children's food activity.
A PR professional said to harbour Parliamentary ambitions, he formerly worked for a communications agency specialising in community work and was involved in the now defunct Britain in Europe. Watts plays the PR game with skill. "The Children's Food Bill coalition has helped lead the campaign to expose Ofcom's pusillanimity," he wrote last year. "Our side won the media battle early to define Ofcom's announcement as too weak, and this perception has continued to build over time."
Jeanette Longfield, Sustain's co-ordinator, was awarded an MBE in the 2007 New Year Honours for "services to food policy".
Formerly known as the Consumers' Association, it has been accused by ad industry leaders of jumping on the anti-advertising bandwagon as a means of boosting its profits as a publishing house.
- Family and Parenting Institute
Chaired by Fiona Millar (above), the partner of New Labour's former communications guru Alastair Campbell. Largely sustained by government funding (it received £9.8 million last year from the Department of Education's Parenting Fund last year, according to its annual report). Has spoken out against the "commercialisation" of childhood and supports a pre-9pm "junk-food" TV ad ban.
- National Consumer Council
Established with Government money in 1975 to safeguard consumer interests. Supported last year with a £2.7 million grant from the Department of Trade and Industry. Criticised for undermining its credibility six years ago over its "Friends" initiative, under which companies could "inform our thinking on consumer policy" in return for a £10,000 annual donation.
- Food Standards Agency
Quango established seven years ago to protect consumer interests in relation to food but much maligned by advertisers, who claim it exceeds its remit. Led by the former NCC chairman Deidre Hutton, the FSA pressed Ofcom for a pre-9pm ban on "junk-food" advertising. Industry trade bodies insist it had no authority to do this.
- National Heart Forum
Umbrella organisation claiming to represent more than 50 organisations and dedicated to driving heart disease prevention higher up the political agenda. Threatened legal action against Ofcom last year for ruling out further consultation on advertising "junk food" before 9pm but quickly abandoned the idea.