Prime Minister Gordon Brown makes an unlikely advertising luvvie.
Yet during his decade as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he lavished tens of millions of pounds on ad campaigns to promote take-up of his tax credits schemes.
He also signed cheques for the greatest outpouring of Government-funded ad campaigns in the UK’s history. Whitehall spending on public information and recruitment advertising soared to over £200m in 2004/5, and the state has become one of the UK’s biggest advertisers.
Ad agencies, especially those on the COI roster, will raise a glass of champagne to their friend in Number 10.
But Brown’s faith in the effectiveness of advertising is a double-edged sword, enough to make one choke on a glass of Veuve Clicquot.
It shows he is convinced of the power of ads to change behaviour – getting us to claim benefits which are rightly ours, scaring us into driving more carefully or giving up smoking.
Unfortunately, he may be equally convinced of advertising’s power to get people to drink more or to encourage children to eat foods high in salt, fat and sugar.
Brown’s Government will no doubt keep pumping out campaigns to promote its policies. It will make savings by spending what it can online, though many campaigns are aimed at poorer groups which are less likely to have internet access. There will still be room for the big Government television ad.
Sword of Damocles?
But his belief in the power of advertising could make him more likely to back a further clamp-down on areas, which encourage behaviour perceived as dysfunctional. It is not a promising scenario for those promoting snack foods to children, an area already subject to ad curbs.
Then again, Chris Smith, the former culture secretary who has just taken up the position of chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority, believes Brown is unlikely to force through further restrictions on advertising, as he told Marketing Week last week. Smith had better hope not. Government-imposed restrictions undermine the whole premise of self-regulation of advertising by the ASA.
It should be noted that some question the effectiveness of Brown’s advertising.
As Chancellor, he hired agencies to create campaigns for his various tax credit schemes and further bursts for Child Trust Funds. He hired M&C Saatchi to run a number of these (Maurice, Mwa!).
But Conservative shadow David “two brains” Willetts claimed the tax credit campaigns were a failure, some achieving take-up off less than two thirds of those eligible. To be fair, a two third’s up take sounds pretty good by the standards of most ad campaigns, as any one-brained brand owner will tell you.
An even more damaging assertion has been the opposition claim that Labour used public information campaigns as a form of disguised electioneering. Even so, for ad agencies it is all money in the bank.
The jury is out on how ready Brown’s Government will be to enact further advertising curbs. As the Advertising Association prepares to unleash a campaign warning of the dangers of a world devoid of advertising, this whole area is set to become an issue of some contention.
One bright spot for agencies is the prospect of a rush to advertise by gambling companies when they are given greater marketing freedoms this autumn as a result of the Gambling Act. An increase in spending here could more than offset the loss of budgets as other areas facing restrictions.
As they say, the Gord giveth and the Gord taketh away.