Is Which? about to meet its match?

These days, its a lucky marketer whose sector is untroubled by restrictions, or the threat of restrictions, placed on freedom to advertise product benefits. And without that franchise, where are you in the consumer society? Why, in tobaccoville a dreary, moribund, heart-breaking sort of place where market opportunities dry up and painstakingly created brands crumble into dusty, lifeless commodities. Its the end of the road, the place where you curl up and die if your willpower fails.
The State, whether defined as HMG or the European Commission, may have devised this Guantanamo Bay for marketers. But it is special interest pressure groups who are their particular tormentors, their betes noires.

These days, it’s a lucky marketer whose sector is untroubled by restrictions, or the threat of restrictions, placed on freedom to advertise product benefits. And without that franchise, where are you in the consumer society? Why, in tobaccoville – a dreary, moribund, heart-breaking sort of place where market opportunities dry up and painstakingly created brands crumble into dusty, lifeless commodities. It’s the end of the road, the place where you curl up and die if your willpower fails.

The State, whether defined as HMG or the European Commission, may have devised this Guantanamo Bay for marketers. But it is special interest pressure groups who are their particular tormentors, their betes noires.

Bit by bit, they chip away at the freedom to communicate. It’s Bogofs now and maybe cheap flights next year. The assault is relentless.

And the worst thing about it is these pressure (or advocacy) groups are themselves virtually impregnable. They affect to speak for the embattled consumer (admittedly over a carefully defined range of issues) and yet, for self-proclaimed advocates of the people, they are themselves peculiarly undemocratic and unaccountable. They rely instead upon an intimate knowledge of the corridors of power and covert manipulation of legislative, legal and regulatory processes to get their wicked way.

Such at least is the black legend of the advocacy group. And nowhere is that loathing more focused than on Which? Ltd, formerly the Consumers’ Association. If you wanted to select a symbolic target to enlist marketers in a crusade rolling back the borders of communications frustration, that target would be Which?

Spookily, that’s exactly what Peta Buscombe, chief executive of the Advertising Association – the most formidable advocate the commercial communications sector has seen in years – is doing.

As a lightning conductor of commercial frustration, Which? has it all. Whether we consider its pious, moralistic tone, the sheer range of its interference, the nature of its history, its irritating popularity, its tentacular hold on the establishment or its hypocritical commercial stance, there’s something there for every full-blooded consumer marketer to fulminate against.

A split personality?
Which? is the grand-daddy of all consumer groups, founded over 50 years ago in the first throes of the post-war ‘affluent society’. Right from the beginning there was a perceived ambivalence in its approach to consumerism. On the one hand, its founding father Michael Young was, or had been, research director of the Attlee Labour Party – a connection which contributed at once to Which?’s formidable finesse in government circles and the perception, fair or unfair, that it was somehow anti-business. On the other, the 32-page magazine featuring reports on aspirin, sunglasses and electric kettles which first emerged from a converted Bethnal Green garage in October 1957 was itself pure free-market enterprise. Far from receiving any government funding, it was entirely dependent upon market forces for its future success: that is to say, subscriptions.

No one would deny that it has been formidably successful in the consumer advocacy task it set itself: a success triumphantly vindicated by its growing army of subscribers, which now number over 650,000.

But the overtly commercial means it uses to acquire them has exposed Which? to charges of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy? Expediently employing commercial techniques whose use by any other practitioner it would roundly condemn. For example, Which? has been criticised for its over-enthusiastic use of ‘junk mail’ prize draws and in mid-2006 decided under pressure to withdraw from them entirely.

It is this commercial ambiguity that Buscombe is hoping to exploit to the general benefit of the marketing industry as she brings her complaint against Which? to the Office of Fair Trading this week.

Who will guard the guardians?
As a result of the 2002 Enterprise Act, Which? was vested, three years ago, with something called super-complaints status. In effect, this gives it a privileged fast-track when bringing consumer complaints before the OFT. The super-complainant need not marshal all the evidence for its complaint before bringing it, but the OFT is obliged to spend up to 90 days investigating it and then further obliged to make a decision whether or not to proceed.

It can easily be seen that super-complaints status is a powerful advocacy tool. As an instance, Which? has recently taken up the consumer cudgel against private dentists: a high profile media issue that will do its subscriber base no harm at all.

Good for them, you may say. But Buscombe profoundly disagrees. For her, and the AA, Which?’s super complaints status is a potential abuse of power and a copper-bottomed conflict of interest. “Which?,” she has been reported as saying, “Has a split personality, because it represents consumers in most public policy debates but at the same time has a commercial arm. I would like to ask the OFT how it assesses Which? and the extent to which the OFT delves into the validity of groups like Which? and their super-complaints status.”

In effect, this is a commercial reworking of that old aphorism “Who will guard the guardians themselves”? Which? will no doubt fall back on the argument that it has no shareholders covertly promoting their own special interests and no special agenda beyond those of its subscribers, who provide the entire funding of the organisation. But Buscombe’s complaint is no less legitimate for all that. And certainly the outcome of any enquiry that may come out of it will be eagerly anticipated by the marketing industry as a whole.

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