Why responsibility is advertising’s ‘burning platform’

Advertising is having a “crisis moment”, according to the president of the Advertising Association (AA) Andy Duncan. The industry body’s own report found that people are more likely to recommend a career in banking than advertising, with it urging the industry to prove it can act responsibly, as well as boost the economy.

Advertising has an important role to play in the UK economy. The latest figures from the AA and Warc show that advertising is helping fuel economic growth, having grown at a faster rate than GDP for the past nine quarters.

However, the public holds a relatively negative view of advertising. Some 73% view it as manipulative and just 34% would recommend a career in advertising to a family member.

Speaking at the AA’s annual LEAD conference, Duncan said: “[The Credos report] suggests there is a bit more of a burning platform than we previously thought.”

“We’ve got to get the value exchange right: what do people get out of advertising?”

Do better on diversity

Politicians from across the political divide attacked advertising’s record on diversity and its representation of women, accusing brands such as Protein World of using advertising to “shock, provoke and get complaints”.

Scottish National Party (SNP) MP Hannah Bardell, speaking on a panel at LEAD, said: “While I think there are many advertisers that are responsible, there are as many that are not.”

She said advertising’s depictions of body image “conform to a male view of what is normal” and neglect to represent minority ethnicities and sexualities.

Labour’s Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for the creative industries, was keen to point out advertising’s power and responsibilities. She urged brands to leave behind stereotypical representations of gender, for example marketing to girls using the colour pink.

“When it is the sole colour used to reflect women, and particularly girls, and is identified with cooking and dolls and those become the careers girls aspire to, that has quite a profound effect.”

The SNP’s Bardell argued that the advertising industry is not “doing as well as it should” with self-regulation through the Advertising Standards Authority.

Politicians have urged marketers to do more to promote diversity

And Onwurah, who worked for telecoms regulator Ofcom for six years, said: “[Voluntary] self-regulation does work when there is a really strong [statutory] regulator who can step in when the market isn’t going to drive things in the right direction with self-regulation.”

New legislation around body image and diversity is unlikely, but the threat will remain unless brands proactively reflect a diverse society.

Work on the basics to combat obesity

New rules around the marketing of sugary foods are, however, high on the political agenda. Prime Minister David Cameron has refused to rule out a sugar tax and adland is widely expecting a debate on advertising foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS).

Jamie Oliver has now added his name to the discussion, arguing during a talk at Lead that such ads should only be shown during the X Factor “when we all have six packs and are living healthy lives”.

He says brands are failing to get the basics right, citing the example of Ribena which only carries nutritional information for half a bottle and uses adult guidelines when “it’s a kids drink”.

The Government is still working on its obesity strategy but Oliver believes what is needed is a holistic approach across the industry, with advertising at the vanguard.

He said: “Advertising is responsible for some of the most incredible creative minds that can put these long drawn out conversations into a [coherent campaign]. Media restrictions are fine but [advertising] has touchpoints in most other categories.

“Little things make a difference like how we conduct the message, subliminal things in the background. Brands need to say we’ll all do it differently.”

Jamie Oliver

Get your data in order

One area where brands know legislation is coming is data. The new General Data Protection Act lays out stringent new rules and allows the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to fine companies found to be in breach at a rate of 4% of global turnover or €20m, whichever is greater.

While brands have two years to “conform to the new regime”, Information Commissioner Christopher Graham said it is not the fine that should be the main concern.

He cited the examples of TalkTalk, which lost up to 100,000 customers after a website hack stole customer data, and UK charities, which have seen their reputations dragged through the mud over how they use fundraising data.

“Data is the new oil and asbestos. There are opportunities and risks. Responsible brands will win. Don’t think about the fines, the fines are not the problem. The response of customers is,” he said.

Some brands are already preparing for the new legislation. The RNLI, for example, is moving to an opt-in communications policy. However Graham warned brands that data protection is something that should be managed by the whole company including marketers.

“Data is not something to leave to the IT guy down the corridor. It is the responsibility of the CEO. This is not about what you can do with data but what you should do,” he explained.

Practice what you preach

Responsible marketing is only worthwhile, however, when it reflects real attitudes within a business, as opposed to being a facade to improve reputation.

Former BP chairman Lord Browne went so far as to claim: “Companies shouldn’t seek to manage their reputation. Reputation is a reservoir of good will to be drawn on.”

Marketers can learn lessons from the TalkTalk data hack, according to Information Commissioner Christopher Graham

He was forthright in denouncing corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a “failed” strategy, arguing it had become marginalised within companies and was something they looked at “for half an hour on a Friday afternoon”.

Instead, he argued that responsibility must be something that is aligned with a business’s day-to-day activities. Yet in a study of execs carried out for his latest book, Browne found that less than 30% integrate the impact on external stakeholders into their business strategies, while only 20% believe their companies have the talent capable of doing it.

As adam&eveDDB founder and CEO James Murphy pointed out, one way for the marketing industry to demonstrate truly responsible business principles is to be selective about which clients and products it promotes.

He argued that agencies are not lawyers or paid advocates who are duty-bound to work for anyone with the means to pay. He told the story of taking on a civil defence client shortly after the 7/7 London bombings. After receiving the first brief for a weapons system marketed to foreign states, the agency realised it had made a mistake.

He counselled the marketing industry to be clear on where to draw the line, otherwise “your staff will come to you and say you’ve made the wrong step”.

What the industry needs to do now is move forward and communicate to the public what its responsibility agenda is and how it is working to achieve it. He said issues such as obesity, privacy and diversity must be brought to life.

“We need to develop the narrative about what it is we believe and talk about it confidently,” he said.


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