The Government is increasingly keen on advertising regulation as a means of controlling social dysfunction. Ironically, constraints can sometimes be a stimulus for creativity, but there is much debate on whether restricting advertising is an effective form of social engineering. By Sonoo Singh
There was a time when Maltesers could boast “Choose the chocolates that keep you slim” and Guinness could claim to be “good for you”, but those days are long gone. The Government, under pressure from lobby groups, has ruled that social problems such as obesity and binge drinking can be largely attributed to the seduction of advertising, and a host of regulation has been introduced. But there is some debate as to whether the increasing number of restrictions on advertising curtail or encourage creativity.
The first salvo was fired four years ago when tobacco advertising was banned, and restrictions have followed in sectors from food to cars to alcohol. Now, consumer groups have turned their attention to the toys, gaming, aviation, financial services and social networking organisations.
Last week, John Whittingdale, chairman of the cross-party Commons select committee, announced an investigation into limiting access to unsuitable material on the internet (MW last week).
Many believe this thicket of regulation takes the fun and creativity out of advertising, but others argue that a certain amount of regulation is positive because it provides boundaries; in any case, everyone then has to play by the same rules.
The industry appears to be rather sanguine on the issue and on the whole does not agree that advertising is any less exciting than it was in the days when Silk Cut could be regarded as a “safer” cigarette.
Grey executive creative director Dave Alberts says: “Creativity, and therefore advertising, is at its best when put under constraints – be it regulatory or even financial. I have worked in the Asian markets during recession and produced work for the heavily regulated pharmaceutical industry, and these situations called for the ability to do reductive thinking. It has never been as exciting.”
JWT chief executive Alison Burns points out that the UK has always been one of the most regulated markets in the world when it comes to communications. However, she adds: “The more regulated environment provides new challenges and opportunities.”
Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO chairman Cilla Snowball, who says she is a “big supporter” of the self-regulation system, also disagrees that increased regulation stifles creativity.
“David Ogilvy used to say that the best creative work came from ‘latitude within limits’. Sure, we all argue about the limits – the execution and interpretation of the regulations from time to time – but the basic system is a solid and good one,” she adds.
Advertising self-regulation in the UK came into force more than four decades ago, with advertisers generally complying to the code that said they should create ads that are “legal, decent, honest and truthful”. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has since been backed by statutory powers and polices the rules laid down in advertising codes to protect consumers and ensure fair play.
Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group, says it was self-regulation that put the word “Probably” in Carlsberg’s original tagline “The Best lager in the world”, making it one of the famous campaigns of all time.
But voluntary or self-regulated codes do not please the advocates of tougher laws on advertising, especially when it comes to issues such as those in the food or drink sectors. So is this increased regulation just retribution for the excesses of an ethically bankrupt marketing community? It is an argument put forward by many of the consumer groups but it does not sit well within the marketing and the advertising industry.
“Lobby groups often see advertising itself as dangerous and carcinogenic, something that tobacco admittedly was – hence the ban,” says ASA director-general Christopher Graham. “But to see advertising as the evil force is just ridiculous.”
Advertising Association chief executive Baroness Peta Buscombe echoes his sentiments and adds: “The problem of obesity, for instance, cannot be tackled by kicking advertising.”
However, the restrictions have been coming thick and fast. Since April 1 this year, ads for brands classed as being high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) have been banned in or around programmes made for children, or which are likely to appeal to children aged four to nine. This ban will be extended to programmes aimed at four- to 15-year-olds from January next year.
M&C Saatchi European chairman Moray MacLennan, who is also the current IPA president, says prohibition of HFSS ads was not one of the “finest moments” for the industry.
“Legislators got it so wrong in making advertising the sole issue when it comes to tackling obesity, rather than leaving the industry to self-regulate,” he adds.
Points not results
Red Brick Road founding partner Paul Hammersley thinks the Government needs to be seen to be doing something about issues such as obesity and that food restrictions earn them “brownie points”.
But regulation, intended largely to protect the public, frequently increases brand or product effectiveness, says Sutherland. He points to restrictions on financial advertising – littered with jargon and disclaimers – that seem to put consumers off when buying financial services products. The other example he gives is that of beer advertising: “An inherently social product but which can no longer be seen in a social context.”
That is the reason beer ads have got “worse and worse” since the 1980s, believes Hammersley. The self-regulatory code states that alcohol ads cannot imply that the successful outcome of a social situation is dependent on the consumption of alcohol.
Similarly, car ads cannot boast about speed or performance in the UK. “But that increasing pressure has brought us some great advertising, such as Honda Cog,” adds Hammersley.
The debate over how much regulation is “enough” seems set to continue. It is not, however, easy to define how many corporate messages consumers can take or when government intervention is legitimate.
But as Sutherland concludes: “There is no doubt that great heights of creativity can be scaled when advertisers are forced to be ingenious. But the danger is that media budgets in tightly regulated industries might just decline or move out of advertising to PR, design or online.”