Industry should unite against single issue pressure groups

PR agencies create the groups that can undermine the sector while ad agencies write the copy and media owners offer them time and space

It’s not often hat the three parties with a direct involvement in UK media – brand owners, media owners and media agencies – share a common agenda, especially around commercial freedom. For many marketing directors and their agencies, discussions around the economics of media tend to centre on the tactics and negotiations of audience measurement, of station average cost per thousand or the mechanics of Contract Rights Renewal (CRR), let alone the benefits of agency commissions versus fee.

So, it’s somewhat ironic that where everyone does share a common agenda – on agreement about the fundamental freedom to advertise – our industry is inadvertently colluding to undermine that very freedom.

For many years from the turn of the century until the mid-Nineties, freedom to advertise was one of the axiomatic commercial and individual freedoms of the free market. As long as your product was legal (and as long as your advertising was legal, decent, honest and truthful), then the broadcast world was available to advertise your brand and this revenue stream in turn funded a thriving and dynamic commercial media sector – for newspapers, TV, radio and magazines.

Over time, there were a couple of minor restrictions on advertising perfectly legal products – cigarette ads on TV were banned and there was a voluntary agreement on spirits advertising – but most reasonable-minded marketers accepted that as a price to pay for the freedom to operate elsewhere across the marketing mix (on posters for example) and at point of sale. And as the social evidence became gradually more compelling on the debilitating (or fatal) effects of alcohol abuse or smoking addiction, so this balance remained in proportion. It all seemed, by and large, a fair trade-off.

But now, the landscape is very different/ single issue pressure groups are determined to chip away at traditional freedoms – most prominent is their recent “success” with high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) foods and advertising to kids – but the queue to be next in line is long.

Pick up a paper today and there are attacks on financial services copy (the risk of consumer debt), gambling (and the risks of addiction – especially among low-income groups), the motor industry or airlines (and the desire for a response to climate change). All around, specific sectors are under attack from politically savvy, media literate activists. Only this week, yet another watchdog is calling for a campaign to halt “the commercialisation of childhood” and is drawing up a charter of rights designed to protect children from exploitation by advertising.

Somewhat bizarrely, the chairman of this new pressure group, Compass, is a former aide to Gordon Brown, the politician directly responsible for the financial stewardship of our free market economy.

So you’d think our industry would unite in working together to secure advertising’s future against these single issue pressure groups: either for practical self-interest (to protect today’s commercial revenues) or out of philosophical belief (to safeguard the right to advertise for tomorrow). But far from it. It’s ironic: our industry inadvertently works against itself.

Our greatest PR agencies devise and create the pressure group campaigns that undermine the sector; ad agencies write the copy; media owners devote newspaper column inches and television prime time to fuelling consumer concern about “junk food” or the social evils of gambling or the commercialisation of Christmas and brand owners feed (quite literally) the obesity debate with promotions that drive weight (pun intended) of purchase.

So, through all this, collectively, we inadvertently champion the interests of self-elected pressure groups, while ironically undermining the financial and commercial freedom that comes from a sustainable advertising base.

In the debate that’s starting to take place about advertising freedom, the first thing we should do is stop feeding the very monster that undermines it. Only then, can we start the advertising, PR and media work – across the great talent that is at the heart of this industry – that champions the benefits all advertising brings to a free society.

Andrew Harrison is chief executive of the RadioCentre. You can contact Andrew at andrew.harrison@centaur.co.uk

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