The Tory party has declared war. Yet, in its bid to win the next General Election, it is not the global financial crisis that the Conservatives are challenging, but advertising.
So fears the ad industry, waiting for the axe to fall on one of the UK’s biggest advertisers – COI, with an annual spend of £391m on marketing communications – after Shadow Chancellor George Osborne promised to slash the Whitehall advertising budget by almost 60% to help allow a two-year freeze on council tax bills.
In his speech at the Conservative party conference last week, Osborne said that his party was committed to taking the level of ad spend down to what it was in 1997, and cut the current £391m spend to £163m – more than a 58% reduction.
“In the private sector, when times are tough, you take out the overheads. The consultants are sent packing and the advertising budget is cut. The Government should do the same. We are going to put caps on Labour’s wasteful consultancy and advertising bills,” said Osborne.
The ad industry’s almost unanimous response has been that the Conservative plan to paint advertising as the “evil art of seduction” is a headline-grabbing ploy “at a time when there are no other clear-cut policies”. One advertising executive says that a party headed by former PR man David Cameron “knows that people vote with their hearts, and cutting Government ad spend to save taxpayers’ money, is something that will appeal on an emotional level”.
The Government does not have the power to impose direct council tax freezes, but Osborne has said that those councils which limit spending increases will be offered help.
The COI’s spend on advertising has almost quadrupled since Labour came to power in 1997, fuelling accusations that the Government relies on spin, rather than substance. Cabinet Office figures recently showed that the Government has spent more than £800m on advertising in the past five years. Four departments – the Treasury, the Department for Transport, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Health – have spent more than £100m each since 2002.
Similar charges of over-spending were levelled at the Tories, by Labour in opposition, before Labour came to power in 1997, particularly over campaigns for privatisation and training for the jobless. COI insiders, therefore, say that they are surprised by Osborne’s “unusual, heavy-handed approach to advertising”.
Delaney Lund Knox Warren chief executive Mark Lund says: “Government advertising is about effecting social change and behaviour, and any Government in power understands the need to do that and provide information about policy change.”
In the past, the Tories have also claimed that the Government is using increasing amounts of taxpayers’ money to sneak Labour Party propaganda into public information commercials. This is not a new idea, but one which is difficult to prove, say many. An Osborne aide says the party will, however, “save” high-profile ad campaigns, such as anti-smoking, sexual health, the anti-drugs “Frank” campaign and the £10m anti-binge-drinking drive, which included hard-hitting images of a young man falling to his death after climbing scaffolding while on a drunken night out.
A party insider says that these campaigns are a “continuation” of the campaigns that the Conservatives launched in the Eighties, including the “agenda-setting” AIDS campaign, with a voiceover from the actor John Hurt saying: “There is now a dreadful disease…”
A COI source says that the ad campaigns on the Tory “save list” are the ones that make the bulk of the spend.
Another source close to Whitehall adds that advertising is always seen as a cost and never an investment by civil servants, and is therefore under much more scrutiny. The reason why most high-profile campaigns, such as the Home Office crime reduction campaign, use an econometrics model is to justify the spend and prove savings to the Government department. For example, the total anti-knife campaign, including the recently-launched £3m ad talking about the emotional impact of a knife attack, cost £21m, while the savings in terms of “cost of policing” were measured as £590m.
A spokesman for Osborne says his crusade against the rising spend in Government advertising is a “moral issue” and that it is not about scrapping all advertising, but about “better targeted and cheaper advertising in a digital age”. He adds that this has been influenced by US psychologist Robert Cialdini, who says that government campaigns often end up increasing the behaviour they want to reduce.
He cites the example of the tax-credits policy, where “millions” have been spent on much-derided advertising schemes, such as the child tax credit, but it has had “little or no impact.”
Baroness Peta Buscombe, chief executive of the Advertising Association, says that a government must maintain its relationship with the electorate and use social marketing as a force for good. “In difficult times, the Government needs to harness and utilise the positive power of advertising, and it would be foolish to neglect such a potential force for good. Public policy advertising campaigns raise awareness, inspire action and save lives,” adds the Tory peer.
Meanwhile, also on the Conservative agenda is a review of the make-up of the COI, and a “look at the number of people employed and the salaries they draw to see if that gives value for money”.
One observer points to the Phillis Review four years ago, commissioned in the wake of the Jo Moore email affair, after she claimed that September 11 was a good day to “bury” bad news. The review lauded the role of the COI, addressing the breakdown in the level of public trust and the credibility of government communications, while making a case for more – not less – government marketing.
The COI, meanwhile, under chief executive Alan Bishop, has been restructuring itself and its mammoth agency roster since Bishop first arrived at its helm in 2002. The former ad man is credited with taking steps to heal the rift between the COI and the Department for Transport, after the department broke away to appoint its own roster of agencies in the hope of getting a better deal by going it alone.
More recently, COI announced its new agenda for integration – following an independent review of its media-buying systems by RAB founder Douglas McArthur – to include initiatives such as the integration of digital display with mainstream media to ensure cost-effectiveness.
It is expected that the relationship between non-governmental organisations, such as Carbon Trust and Energy Trust which have their advertising needs funded by government, and the various ministries, will also come under scrutiny.
With the London Mayor Boris Johnson, a Conservative MP, having already slashed the ad budgets of the GLA and Transport for London to help fund extra policing (MW May 14), the cut on Whitehall ad budgets is not being seen as an empty threat.
A few ad agencies show “some sympathy” towards driving greater efficiencies in Government advertising, with some saying that certain Whitehall departments “spew out ad campaigns simply to create an impression of furious government activity”.
One ad executive points to the various military recruitment campaigns, with separate ad campaigns for the Army and the RAF, all of which could be combined; or the current CO2 emission campaign run by both Defra and the DfT.
The Tories say that the pledge to reduce spend will not be part of its election manifesto, but a spokesman adds: “We are, however, determined to drive this through.”