Advertising takes the flak but others share the blame

Whoever replaces Niall FitzGerald at Unilever will have to be prepared for an onslaught of media criticism over the obesity ‘epidemic’, says Torin Douglas

There was a curious hiatus at the annual Advertising Association lunch last week. The AA’s president, outgoing Unilever chairman Niall FitzGerald, is stepping down but, in his valedictory speech at The Savoy, he was unable to say who his successor would be: “I should wish my successor well but, since we have not yet found him or her, that is just a little difficult… Ho hum… I may have to say goodbye to you again next year!”

Last week FitzGerald and other leaders of the food and advertising business came under fire from MPs, newspapers and other commentators over obesity, the hot health topic of the day. The peg was the long-awaited report from the House of Commons Health Select Committee, which had the media salivating, then masticating and regurgitating its contents, for much of the week.

The Guardian named FitzGerald as one of the signatories of a letter that had recently arrived in Downing Street, as part of what the paper called “a huge lobbying campaign in Whitehall to see off growing pressure for regulation to tackle obesity and diet-related diseases”.

Another signatory, it said, was John Sunderland, chairman of Cadbury Schweppes and newly appointed head of the CBI, “who has signed twice, once as president of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), and once again as president of The Incorporated Society for British Advertisers (ISBA), the voice of British advertisers, who spent over &£452m on food advertising in 2002.”

Given that one of the purposes of organisations like the AA, the FDF and ISBA is to lobby government, it wasn’t surprising to find out that they had written to Downing Street. But the following day The Guardian was on their trail again.

Under the headline “Revealed: how food firms target children”, it said: “Documents obtained by The Guardian show that the industry is exploiting sophisticated marketing techniques to market to children without their parents’ knowledge”.

These documents turned out to be submissions for the IPA Advertising Effectiveness Awards, which for more than 20 years the IPA has publicised with press releases and published in books, to try to convince the business world that “advertising works”. The irony is that many advertisers are more sceptical about the cost-effectiveness of advertising than the consumer groups and other critics of the business.

As FitzGerald pointed out in his speech, advertisers – the client companies – would rather spend less on advertising. “Of the three component parts of what is rather dodgily called the advertising industry, the advertisers differ from the advertising agencies and the media in one significant way,” he said. “They pay for it.”

“Agencies and the media believe it to be a good year when advertising expenditure goes up in real terms. Advertisers do not.”

The AA represents all three parts of the industry, so while it is trying to convince business that advertising really does work it is also trying to convince MPs, the Government and the consumer lobby that advertisements aren’t as powerful as they think and that not everything is “advertising’s fault”.

In fact, the MPs’ report on obesity recognises this in a way that advertising’s critics don’t accept. It spreads the blame. Though it criticises large food companies for drowning out the “healthy eating” message with promotions for relatively unhealthy food options, it says lack of exercise, more sedentary lifestyles, unhealthy school meals, and economic policies all have an impact.

The MPs say the food and advertising industries should be given three years to change their policies. The fact that they haven’t demanded an immediate ban on advertising targeted at children has irked the critics.

Whoever takes over from FitzGerald as president of the AA will do so at a time when advertising is under greater attack than at any time in the past 30 years. In the mid-Seventies, the Advertising Standards Authority was greatly beefed up as a self-regulatory body following the threat of legislation from Labour’s Department of Consumer Protection and the new Office of Fair Trading.

So successful was it seen to have been by those in government that the ASA is now being given wider powers, taking over responsibility for the content of broadcast advertising, which is being devolved by Ofcom. The change was actively promoted by the AA, which began lobbying for it five years ago. But this too is adding to the tension between the ad business and the consumer lobby, which – as reported here in January – furiously opposed the change.

Ofcom has just announced a major concession. There’s to be an Advertising Advisory Committee, independently chaired, to advise the industry body that will draw up the broadcast advertising code of practice. But before the changes can go through, they must be debated in both Houses of Parliament – and that will give the obesity campaigners full rein to air their views.

It could be a heated occasion.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News

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