Torin Douglas: Spinning a yarn about government advertising

Labour’s record £16m advertising spend last month has caused an age-old political argument to erupt. But it’s just a flash in the pan, says Torin Douglas

The revelation last week, that the Government has overtaken Unilever and Procter & Gamble to become the country’s biggest advertiser, once again fuelled criticism that Labour is the party of spin. There were accusations that ministers were using taxpayers’ money to promote Labour policies in the run-up to the general election.

Tory chairman, Michael Ancram, stormed: “This is yet more evidence of a government obsessed with spin, prepared to spend taxpayers’ money on mass advertising.”

The evidence, it turned out, was based on just one month’s spending, a shorter period than most observers would expect to draw serious conclusions from. In February – according to the media monitoring service, AC Nielsen MMS – the Government spent £16.4m on advertising, against Unilever’s £12.2m and P&G’s £10.1m. Three campaigns accounted for most of the expenditure: one encouraging families to claim children’s family credit, another recruiting nurses and a third urging people to plan proper pension provisions.

When the March figures come out, we may or may not find the trend continuing, and the Government extending its lead at the top. Its ad spend has grown during Labour’s period in power, from £43.8m in 1997 to £102.7m last year – according to the Press Association.

But the phenomenon is not at all new and what makes the situation particularly piquant is that ten years ago the Labour opposition was making exactly the same criticism of the then Conservative government.

A Labour press release of July 1991 headed “Tory propaganda at the taxpayers’ expense” begins: “Even before it launched its £8m publicity campaign for its Citizens’ Charter, Tory government spending on publicity was set to exceed £150m in this year. This is five times what was spent on publicity as recently as 1985 or 1986.”

The results of an analysis of the Government’s publicity proposals by the then shadow energy secretary, Frank Dobson. The figures, he said: “show that the Government plans a massive increase in publicity in the run-up to what may be an autumn general election.”

Mr Dobson, who made something of a speciality of the subject, went on: “Some Government publicity is legitimate, but much of it is blatant Tory propaganda or is designed to give the impression that the Government is ‘doing something’ The idea is to give a false impression of activity. It is a misuse of public funds.”

During the years 1988 to 1991, Dobson launched regular salvoes at Tory ad campaigns. Baroness Thatcher had presided over a boom in Government advertising – urged on by Lord Young, her publicity-minded Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Not surprisingly, an unabashed Lord Young hit back, delving even further into the past. He told the House of Lords in May 1988 that, allowing for media inflation, the Tory Government was spending less on advertising than the Labour Government of ten years before:

“If we go back ten years and up-rate the amount the government then spent on advertising using media inflation, the figure comes to £58m. Excluding privatisation, the budget for last year was £54m.”

The words “excluding privatisation” might be regarded by some as a weasel phrase. In 1987 to 1988, the Tory government spent £25m on privatisation advertising, boosting the total ministerial ad spend by a third to £79m. Labour argued that these campaigns were, in effect, selling the Government’s policy of share ownership and should not have been excluded.

Regardless of this exclusion, what of Lord Young’s claim that the old Labour government spent more than Baroness Thatcher’s?

By this stage, in our walk down Memory Lane, we’ve reached the distant days of 1978 to 1979, when the Callaghan government spent £18.7m on advertising. Let us assume that Lord Young was right about the level of media inflation and this was equivalent to £58m in 1987 to 1988, was he making a fair comparison?

Not entirely. There was a big difference in the nature of the campaigns. Analyses of the time showed that 60 per cent of the Central Office of Information’s (COI) advertising in 1978 to 1979, under Labour, was for non-controversial campaigns. Some 23 per cent of the £18.7m went on recruitment advertising for the armed forces. Ten years later, under the Conservatives, that accounted for seven per cent.

From 1978 to 1979, 19 per cent of the COI budget went on road safety advertising, including drink/drive and seat-belt campaigns, 11 per cent on energy efficiency campaigns and ten per cent on crime and fire prevention ads – totalling 40 per cent. Ten years later, those areas combined accounted for less than 11 per cent.

By contrast, 60 per cent of the Tory spending in 1987 to 1988 went on areas where there was no all-party agreement, such as privatisations and campaigns aimed at the jobless.

So, coming up to date, what about the Labour campaigns of 2001? Ministers insist that the big campaigns, such as those for children’s tax credit, nursing recruitment and pension provision are non-political. Their critics claim they can serve political objectives.

But, to date, those critics have not been very vocal. The Conservatives picked up on the story after the Evening Standard and Financial Times had published the figures – But somehow the Tories’ heart didn’t seem to be in the argument. Maybe they, too, have long memories.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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