SBHD: A spate of shock ads has opened a debate on whether advertising influences society or shapes it. Many in the industry believe they are simply reflecting social change and a clampdown would lead to `sanitised’ ads.
Holmes claimed that advertising has a responsibility to portray positive images and not use shock tactics. He cited the Harley-Davidson cinema work by Butterfield Day Devito Hockney, which seems to mock the old and infirm, and the “Beaver Espana” posters by Saatchi & Saatchi for Club 18-30 as bad examples.
His concern is intriguing – some argue hypocritical.
The ad industry normally claims not to influence behaviour or attitudes. It pleads that its only responsibility is to sell products. This conventional view is endorsed by the Advertising Association, which promotes the freedom to advertise any legal product or service. The AA aired its position most vociferously after the recent threat to ban tobacco advertising.
“Advertising should operate within the conventions that society finds acceptable. But that is not to say that it should be an engine for social engineering,” says AA director general Andrew Brown.
Where Holmes talks of ads “selling” attitudes and behaviour, Brown says that, while he shares Holmes’ concerns about shock ads, he would prefer to say that they “reflect” attitudes and behaviour.
Holmes’ speech was warmly received by the TV95 audience, AA and the Advertising Standards Authority. A number of agencies have also expressed sympathy with his opinions.
However, Holmes has left the industry open to a two-pronged attack. Firstly, he is in danger of unleashing another burst of Benettonesque moral panic in the form of hand-wringing, “why-oh-why” articles in the national press.
Butterfield Day joint creative director John Dean, creator of the Harley-Davidson ads, believes Holmes is harking after “Victorian values that will lead to wallpaper advertising”.
By conceding advertising’s role in moulding our culture, Holmes also leaves the industry vulnerable to questions about how it conducts itself and executes its responsibilities. Advertising attaches certain social values to specific products and encourages people to aspire to them. If those prevalent beliefs are elitist and marginalise people then they will inevitably affect society.
If you tell someone, through a constant drip-feed of ads, that without a fast car, large mortgage and private health scheme their life will be meaningless it has far more impact on society than the “shock” ads that have galvanised critics in recent months and sparked Holmes to talk of “yobbishness”.
“Advertising is not an inert object, it is part of society, and as a part of society it affects and moulds that society,” says Jill McKenna, senior lecturer in communication studies at Sheffield Hallam University.
“There is a gradual process of making and shaping people’s ideas and attitudes about others and themselves,” she says.
The ASA received recommendations from 160 pressure groups and non-governmental organisations when it was formulating its new code of practice, published last month.
Many of these groups accuse advertising of encouraging social ills such as anorexia and xenophobia and, most popularly, of being unpleasant to small furry animals. The ASA regards many of the single-issue pressure groups that it spoke to as extremists. But its new code does contain a special clause underlining the need for particular care with issues of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion and disability.
Holmes has also opened himself up to a direct attack on the responsibility of advertisers. “Shouldn’t Holmes have thought of the huge influence the advertising machine has when he was encouraging people to smoke Imperial Tobacco cigarettes?” asks Dean.
Lowe Howard-Spink itself was slammed by the ASA last year for its “Reg” ads for Imperial, which appealed to children.
Dean is also concerned by the way advertising’s imagery lags behind social reality – a conservatism he believes is often client-inspired. “I could tell many stories where we’ve been told by the client that we cannot include ethnic minorities in their ads,” he says.
The Commission for Racial Equality still receives a “substantial” number of complaints about ads. A CRE spokesman says that while racism through the use of stereotypes is a worry, its concerns over the non-portrayal of ethnic minorities are being alleviated by a greater realism over the past five years. Indeed, the CRE knows agencies are making a greater effort to avoid causing racial offence because it views at least one campaign a week for concerned agencies and gives judgments on creative treatments.
Alfredo Marcantonio, a director at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO (an agency with a “no tobacco clients” policy), believes agencies can slip progressive messages into ads as long as they don’t disturb the brand’s communication message.
“Advertising has a responsibility to do more than sell products. It should be pushing at the edges of social change, but not at the cost of what we’re there for. Agencies are probably the most liberal environments in commerce, but so much of what we do is so conservative,” says Marcantonio.
Some believe conservatism makes for very poor advertising. Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe partner MT Rainey spoke about the portrayal of women in advertising at Channel 4’s conference on the subject last November. She believes only gender-specific products need gender-specific advertising.
“Both men and women are routinely involved in purchasing decisions, so you need to find other, more complex target groupings unless it’s an ad for something like tampons,” says Rainey.
She believes gender-specific advertising leads to stereotyping of gender roles, or, at the other extreme, tokenism. Neither of which, she feels, produces meaningful or effective advertising which is relevant to the consumer. “If our advertising becomes anodyne and hygienic it will lessen its impact. It should be socially responsible, but not to the extent that it takes on the role of the nanny.”
Nobody would claim that an individual ad will change a consumer’s life – it is there to influence a purchasing decision. But if people are buying into values that marginalise and discriminate it will inevitably affect the society in which the ads are broadcast, and hence the one in which we all live.