The extraordinary revolution that has transformed the relationship between advertising and politics since the advent of this Labour Government has now gone full circle.
What began some twenty years ago with the Hattersley Horror, when the then member for Birmingham Sparkbrook loomed menacingly over the advertising industry, jowls a-quiver and salivatory glands awash, and then miraculously metamorphosed into New Labour’s clammy embrace of all things marketing, has culminated with the advertising dog biting the political ankle.
John Hooper, chairman of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, has written to the leaders of the three main political parties complaining that their tawdry forays into poster advertising are giving the industry a bad name. Here is an irony to relish. When Hattersley was the Secretary of State for Something or Other in the last Labour administration, he took the conventional liberal-left view of advertising, ie that it was a form of satanical exploitation that created false wants and slavishly served the whoremaster of capitalism. That advertising should now assume a moral superiority to politics and, like the pig in the ditty, get up and slowly walk away, is a hoot. Better still, the old tormentor Hattersley now flecks his foam over the red leather benches of the House of Lords, an institution which he decries as worse than useless, but which he cannot forbear to join all the same. His was a moral high ground built on sand.
John Hooper’s letter follows an accusation from leading advertisers that distrust and dislike of the campaigns run by parties are undermining the confidence in mainstream commercial advertising. The Advertising Standards Authority received a record number of complaints in the run-up to this year’s election when the Tories depicted Tony Blair as a man with demon eyes and Labour showed John Major as two-faced. The ASA upheld the former complaint on the ground that Mr Blair was portrayed in “an adverse or offensive way” without his permission. (The notion of such permission either being sought or granted is novel. Can you imagine the letter of request? “Dear Sir, It is proposed that we should, for the purposes of our own advantage, portray you in an adverse or offensive way, or possibly both. May we assume we have your consent?”)
In adjudicating political advertising, however, the ASA’s powers are circumscribed. Parties are exempt from requirements to offer proof of their claims, to confine themselves to clear and fair comparisons, and to refrain from unfairly attacking or discrediting their rivals.
Such exemptions, says John Hooper, should not continue. “The parties must either come fully into the code or leave it altogether. It is our code, not theirs, and we are unhappy.”
He has a point. As things stand, when an adherent of New Labour, and an admirer of Tony Blair, sees his party and his leader ridiculed and insulted in political advertisements, he has three possible courses of action: he can sue the advertisers for the distress, hurt, and emotional damage occasioned to his person; he can seek counselling; or he can complain to the ASA.
But the ASA alone is unable either to redress the wrong or offer succour to the victim. There is, therefore, the danger that the complainant will suffer additional psychological injury as a result of his failure to secure an adequate punishment for those who have offended him (normally such people have in mind penalties that vary from the pulling out of fingernails to boiling alive in polyunsaturated fat) and will, in his bitter disappointment, hold the whole of advertising to blame. The industry would be seriously hampered by the presence among its target audience of disaffected individuals who, recalling the demon eyes of the poster, become allergic to buying a Nissan or investing in a Wonderbra.
It is not a risk worth taking and Mr Hooper is quite right to try and sort the matter out now. Unfortunately he has already received a setback in the shape of a dusty answer from the Conservatives. According to a party spokesman, “It is neither acceptable nor necessary” to hold political parties to the same standards of advertising as commerce. Moreover, it would be a “logistical nightmare” to submit parties’ election claims to independent verification.
You don’t need a master’s degree in reading between the lines to detect in that a tacit confirmation of what we all know already, that politicians are professional liars. Far from leaving Mr Hooper downhearted, that ought to buck him up. For is it not likely that most normal, sane people know politics for what it is and are able easily to make the distinction between a politician and someone they can trust? Of course, that leaves a tiny minority of abnormal lunatics, but since they are mostly to be found in the House of Commons anyway, why trouble yourself to address them? It follows that mainstream commercial ads can be expected to flow freely, uncontaminated by the filthy tributaries of political propaganda.
Mr Hooper should have above his bed a framed tapestry embroidered with the verse of Hilaire Belloc:
Here richly, with ridiculous display,
The politician’s corpse was laid away.
While all of his acquaintances sneered and slanged,
I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged.