Throwing out the baby with the bathwater

Stuart%20SmithAs we’ve made abundantly clear on various occasions, this magazine broadly sympathises with those who are battling against the tide of regulatory fervour now engulfing marketing communications. There comes a point where the curbs are so prohibitive and so arcane that it is almost impossible to conduct business as normal around the promotion of what are – after all – perfectly legal goods and services.

And yet there is a paradox in all this. As Alison Burns, the widely travelled chief executive of JWT London points out, the UK has long had one of the most regulated communications markets; yet it is arguably also the most creative. This is no accidental relationship. Just as Silk Cut advertising became a lot more interesting once it could no longer play it ‘safe’ (or at least ‘safer’), so Guinness became appealing once we had jettisoned any suggestion that it was in any way good for us. ‘Probably’ was inserted as a self-regulatory after-thought in the Carlsberg’s tagline ‘The Best lager in the world’ – a chance act which changed a pedestrian and soon-to-be-forgotten superlative into one of the most memorable advertising lines of all time.

A similarly reductive thinking process, conditioned by tightened regulation, has positively affected the creativity of car advertising. Forced to abandon the clichés of burning savannah fields and drivers performing acts of reckless derring-do on rocky mountain passes, motor manufacturers are now obliged to benchmark themselves against the delights of Honda’s Cog and Grrr. Sadly, financial services – traditionally one of the most spendthrift, but unimaginative sectors – has as yet failed to rise to the creative challenge. But it would be a surprise if some of the other categories under tight regulatory pressure – food, for example, aviation or even gambling (deregulated, but tightly regulated for all that) – do not produce more provocative creative work in the future.

At first sight this looks like an apologia for statutory intervention. It is not. A light, self-administered, regulation may bend creative minds to greater achievement. Relentlessly turning the screw has quite the opposite effect, as the history of beer and lager advertising indicates. What was unquestionably some of the most stimulating television advertising of the 1980s (Carling, Hofmeister, Heineken, Holsten Pils, Courage Best and so on) is now but a dim memory. A restructuring of the industry may have something to do with this, but repressive restriction of the advertising parameters will have done much more. As Paul Hammersley, chief executive of Red Brick Road, puts it: “Beer is an inherently social product which can no longer be seen in a social context.”

Of course, explicit regulatory corseting is not the only enemy of creativity. A new and insidious nightmare is shaping up nicely: call it carbon footprint paranoia. For those in the agency and media sectors who think that sustainability is essentially a client corporate social responsibility issue, think again. As Andrew Harrison points out, the audit-narrowing potential for every marketing and media plan is mind-numbing.

Should you abandon newspapers and magazines as advertising vehicles, because they involve cutting down trees? Turn down exotic location shoots because they involve flying 20-strong production crews half way round the world for 30 seconds gratification? In fact, come to think of it, should your agency have a self-denying ordinance on airline accounts, since all this cheap travel is so unsustainable…?

Stuart Smith, Editor

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