AA needs to woo public with care

It’s good to see the Advertising Association adopting a high profile at last, with a strategic campaign to promote an understanding of advertising among the general public.

Too often it has played a valuable but obscure supporting role as a lobbyist on ad hoc issues. With the result that, while its commitment in promoting matters such as the freedom to advertise has been greatly appreciated within the industry, the more public aspects of its remit have been neglected.

So much for the unqualified plaudits. What of the merits of the AA’s current mission to explain? At first sight, it’s not transparently obvious why the organisation should be acting now. After all, advertising, and the industry which produces it, are riding high. Spend, at just under £15bn, is greater than ever before in absolute terms and as a percentage of GNP. What’s more, advertising has won an important ideological battle. The cold war with the Left is over. It enjoys, by and large, the ear of New Labour, which accepts the efficacy of self-regulation, as opposed to the need for statutory controls. Indeed, the advertising industry occupies an important place in culture secretary Chris Smith’s recent report on Britain’s £59bn creative sector, which, we are told, is doing so much to promote our image abroad.

But there is one large cloud louring on the horizon – just east of Dover to be precise. The European Commission is to the UK advertising industry what the euro (according to surveys) is to the majority of the UK population: an unwelcome, meddlesome intrusion. The Cartesian, one-size-fits-all mentality which prevails in Brussels is seen, with some justification, as a threat to the more laissez faire regime over here. We have already witnessed the EC’s castrating influence on tobacco advertising and sponsorship, runs the argument. What next? Soon we will be reduced to the most restrictive common denominator on advertising to children (following the Scandinavian model), alcoholic drink (following the French), and God knows what else if something is not done to stop the EC in its tracks.

It is this which makes an appeal over the heads of the bureaucrats to the public so attractive. But the AA should not (and, to be fair, probably does not) underestimate the difficulties and dangers of this strategy. While the British public is tolerant of, and occasionally amused by, advertising it is profoundly ignorant of its workings. This vacuum of ignorance is easily filled with suspicion. Vance Packard may long have gone to his grave, but the widespread belief persists that advertising is there to manipulate rather than inform choice and oil the wheels of the economy. Mounting a campaign, if that is the plan, on the treacherous field of advertising to children may not be the best way to win hearts and minds.

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