Freedom fighters’ first salvo

The Advertising Association is fighting against a climate of mistrust against the industry with a campaign to promote the benefits marketing brings to society. But some argue the AA must do more to win the support of its members before tackling public opinion. Sonoo Singh reports

Imagine a world without advertising – with no slogans or brands shouting from television sets. A world in which an iron curtain is drawn over the corporate world, leading to a lack of consumer choice and eradicating the need for multi-channel platforms. That is the rather grim picture being painted by the Advertising Association (AA) in a new campaign that aims to fight back against the growing restrictions on the industry.

The campaign will champion the cause of advertising as it comes under siege from the Government, lobby groups and even the public, all of whom have pointed the finger at the industry in debates about junk food, alcohol and gambling.

The AA is trying to “dispel such myths” and wants to establish advertising as a force for good and essential to consumers’ social wellbeing (MW last week). Newly installed chief executive Baroness Peta Buscombe, who is also a Conservative member of the House of Lords, has made it her mission to protect “advertising freedoms”. The campaign will talk about “a world without advertising” and make the case for the industry as a source of economic prosperity and entertainment. Buscombe is hoping to galvanise the industry behind the initiative and attract financial support to help launch the campaign.

Consumer choice
Buscombe, who took over from the more low-profile Andrew Brown in January, says she wants to remind both Whitehall and consumers that advertising is driven by the need for consumer choice. “Any advertising ban is only a quick-fix solution to some rather complex issues such as obesity and binge drinking,” she adds.

The AA’s chairman, Delaney Lund Knox Warren chief executive Mark Lund, says the campaign will target the key decision-makers, including legislators and regulators, as well as the general public.

But not everyone is convinced that public support for advertising will follow an ad campaign that applauds the industry. Many experts believe that, while people may find some advertising entertaining, they generally view ads as irritating interruptions.

BBDO EMEA chairman William Eccleshare says/ “Anything that promotes our cause at a time when we seem to be under siege is welcome. However, I am not convinced that a high-profile consumer advertising campaign is the most efficient or effective way of achieving this laudable aim. It’s very hard not to appear to protest too much and I feel there may be other means of getting what we want.”

Buscombe says that the industry might eventually find that consumers just do not care but maintains that it is imperative to engage with them and find out if the industry can tap into public support.

Lund agrees that in this current climate of mistrust towards advertising, it will be difficult to convince the public that advertising can be “beautiful” because it is a commercial operation designed to generate wealth. He does, however, argue that there is a “systematic battle” to be fought against those who think that banning advertising can solve all of society’s problems.

Increased restrictions will eliminate competition and discourage entrepreneurship, believes Lund, who points to Eastern Europe in the 1980s when state-owned monopolies operated in a protected market, characterised by inflated prices and rationing. “Only when the restrictions were removed could consumers benefit from increased availability of higher quality goods and services, lower prices and greater choice,” he adds.

Creative economy
The AA’s plans have been unveiled in the same week as independent think-tank the Work Foundation published a report saying that Britain’s creative industries are as vital to the country’s economy as the financial services sector. Commissioned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the report covered industries including advertising, television, music, gaming and fashion and said that the creative economy is a “great unsung success story” employing more than a million people.

The report followed the ban of the re-run of the iconic 1960s TV campaign that urged viewers to “go to work on an egg”. The ad, featuring Tony Hancock, has been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) because it goes against the principle of eating a varied diet.

Meanwhile, there is still confusion over new rules regarding advertising to children. In the latest twist, it seems that ads for whole-fat milk might not be allowed to appear during children’s TV shows. As a result, Asda has had to limit its new commercial to skimmed varieties after its whole-fat milk fell foul of Food Standards Agency guidelines. The supermarket has written to Ofcom demanding changes to the formula used to decide which products cannot be advertised to youngsters.

Marketing Society chief executive Hugh Burkitt says: “It is a ludicrous that snacks, chocolates, sweets, toys and even milk have been demonised by regulators and pressure groups.”

Persuasive powers
But Burkitt shares the fears of others who question whether promoting itself is the best way for advertising to change people’s views about the industry. He adds: “In the public minds and in the minds of those who protest against advertising, the medium has incredibly persuasive powers. But all of us who work in advertising know that what it does best is to reinforce prejudices that still exist, and it is ultimately not about fundamental attitude shifts.”

He says that the challenge for the AA is not only to galvanise the industry into supporting the campaign but also to initiate a debate about advertising among the public at large.

Like the case of the cobbler’s children with no shoes, the advertising industry is accused of not standing up for its rights. But with a politician like Buscombe wanting to future-proof self-regulation and persuade the Government that there is “some good” in advertising, the industry is hoping to put up a fight against further legal curbs.

Executive vice-president and managing director of Grey Global Group and president of Team P&G Tamara Ingram says that Buscombe understands better than any other the business from the perspective of the policy makers and therefore the sustained threats to the freedom to advertise in a responsible way.

The task now is to convince all those who believe otherwise. For the advertising industry, this will be one of the most challenging creative briefs it will ever have to crack. 

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