Let’s stop the Government marketing bashing

It is not my job to be an apologist, defender or cheerleader for the Government or the Central Office of Information. However, I am becoming increasingly irked by the political football that the Government’s marketing and communications spending has become.

Last week, the mouthpiece of moral outrage, The Sun ran a story claiming that £100m of tax payers’ money will be spent on data mining and profiling that will ultimately lead to more and more junk mail tumbling through the letterboxes of unsuspecting householders. Ever willing, the Tories, sensing a sure-fire vote-winner, laid into the Government’s “incompetence” in pledging to cut junk mail and then “stuffing more of it through letter-boxes.”

Of course, that would be fair if this is what was actually happening. The £100m figure referred to relates to a January COI note that signalled the intention to review its direct and relationship marketing operational services framework. As is standard in these notices, the annual value is quoted, in this case “£25-30m per annum” with the suppliers likely to be used for up to four years.

Secondly, the framework does not just include suppliers of direct mail or data services – the latter, of course will improve targeting and therefore reduce unwanted mail – it includes suppliers of contact centres, email and digital personalised print services.

See what has happened here? An annual figure spread across a number of agencies for a number of suppliers to spend on several different channels and services over four years has become £100m on one channel.

To be fair to The Sun, I expect a degree of sensationalism and common denominator reporting from it. However, what does rile me is the readiness of MPs to talk tough and promise to slash advertising budgets as if there is no public worth in public health or information campaigns at all.

The Tories have promised to slash Government spending on advertising to 1997 levels while hammering the Labour Party over its profligacy and irresponsibility at a time of national economic crisis.

There is a thread of an argument here. The coordination, targeting and integration of campaigns, particularly those that straddle several departments, needs to be better planned, which will in turn save money – for example, the Government’s campaign to tackle alcohol misuse, which involves a number of departments.

But let us blow the trumpet for public sector marketing for a moment. This week saw the release of a report marking the first anniversary of the Government’s Change4Life campaign. In it, evidence that the money spent on marketing, with particular credit given to direct marketing, had already led to significant behavioural change.

Of course there is wastefulness, there are poorly targeted campaigns but there is also a commitment to change. The COI is one of the first organisations to receive the PAS2020 certification, an environmental standard for the marketing industry that aims to target and reduce waste.

Improvements are being made and will need to continue, but let us not forget the valuable contribution to public heath and well-being that direct marketing and other forms of Government communications can make.

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