Since May 1, the Labour Government has confirmed its ban on tobacco advertising, ex-tended it to include 9m of sponsorship, slammed and threatened to ban the advertising of alcopops for appealing to children and raised the spectre of statutory rather than voluntary regulation of the industry.
And yet the expectation among advertising agencies, government departments and, privately, the Central Office of Information is that this Labour Government will actually spend more on advertising than the previous Conservative administration, and by a substantial amount.
In opposition Labour accused the ruling Conservatives of abusing government advertising budgets for party political purposes. The new Health Secretary, Frank Dobson, seemed to spend most of the early Nineties, when he was shadow energy secretary, accusing the Conservatives of using taxpayers money to buy propaganda. In 1990 he accused ad agencies of being “privatisation junkies” during electricity privatisation.
Labour called for the introduction of a system of payment by results for agencies working on government business – it has never withdrawn the idea. And in the past four years Labour has condemned advertising by the Department of Education; complained about a 3m recruitment ad campaign for the army when it was sacking soldiers; criticised expenditure on the Citizen’s Charter as party propaganda and accused the Home Office of “incompetence” over a campaign for firework safety.
Tony Blair told the Nolan Committee, investigating propriety in public life, in 1995: “Given the way ministers have abused funds for advertising, we believe much stronger rules for expenditure should be established and have a statutory force. Ministers appear to have little difficulty in obtaining relatively large sums of money to advertise schemes even when these are almost certain to appeal to only a minority of people.”
All discussion of the Labour Government and advertising seems to revolve around bans and restrictions. But, says one Labour source: “There is a tradition of ignoring what has been said in opposition.”
It could be argued that it is in the interest of all those concerned – the agencies, the politicians and the civil servants – to increase spend.
But the expectation of greater spend is based on a number of more concrete factors: the Government just elected is the most advertising savvy this country has ever seen; it has proposed one of the largest legislative programmes in modern history and has a majority of 179 MPs in the Commons to force it through.
It is also committed to a Freedom of Information Act and “open government” which will require greater consultation with the population. Ironically, last year Labour attacked the Conservatives for not spending enough on advertising a code of conduct to promote open government.
“The reality is that nobody, not even Blair, can say if this Government will spend more on advertising,” says one agency chief executive with 15 years’ experience of working on COI advertising business. “The total is the combination of monies spent by the individual departments and there is no central budget. It is based on department needs.
“But here is a party which was forced to watch as the Conservatives used aggressive advertising against it for 15 years. It has learnt, through the likes of Peter Mandelson, that it can use those methods to its own benefit.
“Any government spend will have to be justified as playing a role in the implementation of policy. There is so much new policy that a proportion of it will require advertising to explain, to recruit and simply to implement the legislation. There will be more government advertising.”
Spend on government advertising has actually remained static since John Major was re-elected in 1992. In his first year it stood at 47m, before rising to 63m in 1993/94, falling to 55m in 1994/95, and rising again to 63.6m in 1995/96.
And although the total figure for last year is not yet available, the expectation is that it has not gone above 60m. But it remains the greatest part of government publicity spending (see table), which includes, for example, direct marketing, PR and leaflets as well as advertising.
Tighter Cabinet Office guidelines on spending in the pre-election period to prevent accusations of bias, combined with the fag-end of a Conservative administration that had run out of ideas and money, goes some way to explaining the comparatively muted spending.
“There will be a bit of a pause until the legislation is passed but within one or two years there will be some very large pieces of business,” says a COI observer, hoping to pick up some of that work.
The first Labour Government for 18 years unveiled 26 pieces of legislation in the Queen’s Speech. Everything from its welfare-to-work package to its pension plans and perhaps most imminently the referendum campaigns for Scot land, Wales and London will need to be explained and consulted on.
Entry to a single European currency will also be put to a referendum.
The Home Office alone has a programme of law and order reforms to include curfews on young people, outlawing anti-social neighbours and banning handguns. Advertising could be justified for all of those, but it will come down to spending considerations.
The Scottish Office is already drawing up “contingency” plans for the referendum on Scottish devolution although it cannot take any action until the legislation is formally passed later this summer.
Along with the Home Office, Harriet Harman’s Department of Social Security, the Department of Trade & Industry and John Prescott’s Environment & Transport Department, the Scottish Office will be among the early spenders on advertising. These will come on top of existing advertising for existing recruitment campaigns for the armed services, health, and drink drive programmes.
Publicity spends, including advertising, form part of the annual bids each department makes to the Treasury. In the years of the big privatisations the figures were highly distorted. In reality advertising is a minimal cost to the Government, but its size is way out of proportion to the potential controversy it can cause.
The clean-cut Blair will want to avoid allegations of bias and the Government Information Service will want to retain its political impartiality.
But politicians have short memories and it can only be a matter of time before Kenneth Clarke, William Hague or any of the other Conservative leadership contenders accuse the new Government of using taxpayers money for party propaganda purposes.