Cameron unsheathes the sword of damocles

David Cameron’s crusade against the sexualisation of children has little to do with solid policy, but it will have marketers falling into line

Stuart Smith
Stuart Smith

So where did David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party and self-styled Man of the People, pick up his blokeish interest in darts? Did he nip over the wall at Eton, and disport himself in the local Windsor hostelries? Or was it perhaps at Oxford when, sated with the saturnalian excesses of the Bullingdon Club, he sought plebeian refuge in a few jars at the King’s Arms?

As a populist credential, it sounds fake – and it is. Unlike his experience of marketing communications, which is entirely authentic: after all, he did spend seven years labouring as Michael Green’s official mouthpiece at Carlton Television during the Nineties.

So, if he knows his share of voice from his station average price, why has he come up with such apparently naive proposals for clamping down on the commercialisation of children? Just to recap, Cameron has proposed an independent website where people can complain about offensive marketing tactics, particularly those bearing upon the precocious sexualisation of children. And, to cap it all, he has threatened a three-year government boycott on agencies found guilty of flouting the rules.

The answer, I suggest, is to be found in increasingly desperate gesture politics. These tactics have everything to do with snuffing out any resurgence of Labour in the polls and almost nothing in common with the formulation of serious social policy once he is in power – if that’s where he ends up after May 6.

From Cameron’s point of view it’s the perfect threat: heads he wins, tails the marketing services industry loses. Let me expand this a little.

The industry’s regulatory and representative bodies – from the ASA to the AA, ISBA and IPA – have come out of their corners brandishing the hallowed principles of self-regulation. Here’s a specimen example from Hamish Pringle, IPA director-general: “You can’t just airbrush over nearly 50 years of the highest standard in legal, decent, honest and truthful advertising, governed by tough codes, abided by over 95% of the time by advertisers and their agencies, and enforced by a world-class regulator in the ASA.”

Believe me, Hamish, Cameron has no intention of airbrushing over anything, except perhaps his own features. Think of the expense involved in setting up and sustaining a complex quango of regulatory organs designed to guard the guardians themselves. By contrast, the threat of statutory regulation hanging over the industry like a Sword of Damocles will prove remarkably efficacious in ensuring those self-regulatory bodies selflessly dedicate themselves to improving that 95% hit-rate without any obvious cost to the Exchequer.

It is far from clear that Cameron expects to confine the content on his proposed website to childhood sexualisation. He seems intent on mobilising opinion against all forms of ’excessive commercialisation’. Where might this crusade end? In the prosecution of those suspected of promoting pester power?

In effect, the industry is seeing this issue from the wrong end of the telescope. What really matters to politicians is not the success but the failure rate. It matters to them because it matters to the 24/7 media, who in their desperation for news, seize on and exaggerate error, and to the voting public who are only too prepared to believe the media. The resulting opprobrium may be disproportionate and “unfair” but, unfortunately, it’s also part of the rough and tumble of commercial life.

There are, of course, few worse misdemeanours in the eyes of contemporary society than the wilful perversion of childhood innocence. And hardly anyone, even in the marketing industry, would be hard-hearted enough to disagree with Cameron when he cites some contemptible (and patently stupid) examples of pre-pubescent sexualisation encouraged by marketing. What was Woolworths thinking of when it introduced the “Lolita” range of girls’ bedroom furniture; or Tesco when it decided padded bras for eight-year-olds were the next hot property? What indeed.

As if that weren’t enough, there is a breed of marketer, more cynical than stupid, that deliberately flouts the regulations with a view to courting media coverage. After all, one reprimand by the ASA may be worth many column-inches given over to, shall we say, Michael O’Leary browbeating the ASA as “dimwits” trying to “censor” Ryanair when all it meant to do with its Hottest, Back to School Fares campaign – featuring a provocatively dressed adult model going on 13 – was have “a bit of fun”. Though in a minority, these campaigns – through their visible contempt for the rules – undermine the status of self-regulation, and thus give succour to those determined to institute statutory alternatives.

Nor does the issue end here. It is far from clear that Cameron expects to confine the content on his proposed website to childhood sexualisation. Indeed, he seems intent upon mobilising public opinion against all forms of “excessive commercialisation”. Where might this crusade end? In the prosecution, for example, of those suspected of promoting pester power?

Professor Buckingham, the eminent child psychologist, recently produced an even-handed report suggesting that commercial influences upon children are an inevitable part of contemporary life (blog, Dec 16). He counselled against draconian legislation, instead recommending reliance upon educational programmes.

That, of course, is not the kind of nuanced conclusion politicians want to hear. Still, perhaps the telegenic Dr Linda Papadopolous, whose own report on child sexualisation – commissioned by the Home Office – appears this week, will reach conclusions more to their liking.

I understand that one of her targets is the fashion and fashion-magazine business. It is a melancholy truth that society lauds – or at least condones – twizzlestick, size-zero models who look like anorexic 13-year-olds as an icon of desirability. Even Cameron, presiding in his Court of the Star Chamber, would find it difficult to stick that charge entirely upon the marketing community.

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