Andrew Harrison on the biggest issue facing marketing today

What is the single biggest issue facing the marketing industry today? Its not the growth of digital media, the importance of social networks, the attraction of user-generated content, nor the resilience of traditional broadcast although most of us would acknowledge that these are all intriguing opportunities for marketing directors.

What is the single biggest issue facing the marketing industry today? It’s not the growth of digital media, the importance of social networks, the attraction of user-generated content, nor the resilience of traditional broadcast – although most of us would acknowledge that these are all intriguing opportunities for marketing directors.

The critical issue is the one we’re failing to confront – the freedom to advertise at all. Without commitment to that strategic imperative, all the other opportunities are tactical distractions. You might think it logical that if a product is legal to sell, then it is legal to advertise. Is it that straightforward? No.

Freedom to advertise is the fundamental issue which should unite media owner, brand owner, advertiser and retailer. Advertising fuels the consumer economy, creates wealth, leads the market, drives choice and powers innovation. What would a world without advertising be like? It would be a centrist economy, where the state defines the market, dictates choice and spends the wealth – a society without innovation.

You would think this was obvious, but we’re sleep-walking in a world of ad-free channels (for children), ad-free dayparts (before a 9pm watershed), ad-free categories (cigarettes and baby milk) and restrictions on all major ad categories – those very sectors which drive the UK industry.

Take five of the biggest spending sectors as an example and pick a restriction coming to a brand near you. In financial services, ads are obliged to carry a disclaimer to protect consumers: “Credit subject to status. The value of your investment may rise or fall”. If lobbyists have their way, there will be no spirits on TV, no beer before 9pm and constant reminders to “drink responsibly”. Food advertising is restricted during children’s programming. New content rules are being rolled out all the time and there are calls for a pre-watershed ban. It’s probably best not to eat at all – but ads had better not show size zero models.

Consumers should take care on pre-pay contracts for mobile phones, and pay heed to calls for warnings on health risks. As for cars, the credit deal is still subject to status, but ads must also carry CO2 emission details. And don’t even think about popping out for a cigarette or a flutter on the horses, without disclosing the size of your carbon footprint.

Until now, we have all colluded in this gradual erosion of advertising freedom. Each sector has been defensively appeasing its own NGO lobby under the delusion that waving an agreed regulatory paper heralds “peace in our time”. But we’ve missed the point and are beginning to realise that this won’t stop. Yesterday’s cigarettes and spirits are today’s unhealthy foods and tomorrow’s carbon footprint.

Now, in truth, none of us support irresponsible advertising, and most of us understand the need for sensible, proportionate regulation. We all operate under successful co-regulatory guidelines, but it is time for us to wake up and stand together for the essential freedom to advertise.

In order to earn that, we need to do four things. First, we need to improve our self-regulation. Let’s pre-empt the restrictions we fear by showing a quicker response and willingness to engage. If there’s a change in consumer expectations – like a demand for food labelling or understanding carbon emissions – it would be smarter to generate an agreed standard as soon as possible. If we don’t (or if we seek short-term competitive advantage by non-compliance), it will lead to the long-term imposition of schemes that are worse for all. Just look at the food sector.

Second, we need to show restraint. When the consequence of an ad ban is the diversion of ad spending into either unregulated media or promotions that inflate consumption, we are our own worst enemy. Does anyone believe there is no correlation between “buy one get one free”, super-sizing, multipacks and “extra free” in impulse food categories, and childhood obesity? Unless we show restraint, we should expect the in-store ban to follow the ad ban.

Third, we should fight for the freedom to advertise. There were 1,300 guests at the Marketing Society’s annual black-tie event at the Grosvenor House Hotel last week. There are more than 20,000 subscribers to our various trade-press titles. How many are campaigning on this issue? If all those marketers and ad people in our industry with profiles on Facebook raised the profile of the freedom to advertise instead, we too might start a national movement.

Finally, in order to get results, we should work in partnership. Yes, we need to be bold and imaginative, but we also need to partner with the Government to promote education and lifestyle changes. Our industry is about creative executions of big ideas which change consumer behaviour. A partnership with the Government would help to move things forward, rather than prolonging the self-defeating appeasement.

Andrew Harrison is chief executive of the RadioCentre

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