Can we have a more intelligent debate on regulation please?


Will regulation hole advertising below the water line?

As if advertising weren’t challenged enough already by consumer behaviour and technology, the regulators are coming.

They have been circling for a long time but until now self-regulation has kept them at bay.

But with pressure to ban the advertising of ‘junk food’ altogether to follow its prohibition in children’s media and increasing calls to ban alcohol advertising things are getting serious.

The response of the industry is of course outright resistance at all costs and has led UK advertising bible Campaign to launch a petition aimed at marshalling opposition to further regulation by legislation.
Now, I’m not about to say this is the wrong course of action, although it is somwhat predictable. For one thing its seems very clear that those that propose regulation most fervently don’t so much have a problem with the advertising of specific products with high social costs but with capitalism itself. And it is absolutely right to question their motivations.
Moreover, we need to be clear whether restricting advertising for certain products and services will solve a critical problem that faces society (like obesity or binge drinking) and to which advertising has often contributed. Conclusive evidence rarely exists on the likely effect of an ad ban.
That said I do want to try to explore a more mature and thoughtful approach to regulation that steers a course between the vindictive abolitionists and the meatheaded advertising brigade who believe that if a product is legal it should be legal to advertise it.
So I’d like to advance four observations to help inform a proper debate.
Firstly, we had our chance and we blew it. Our persistent opposition to regulation by legislation and our flouting of the spirit if not the letter of the self-regulatory guidelines on tobacco advertising have permanently compromised our credibility in engaging legislators on other issues. Other issues where we might actually have a credible case.
Indeed the more Neanderthal of my advertising brethren still whitter on about the spur to creativity that tobacco self-regulation gave to the industry. The famous B&H ‘Gold’ campaign was not a flowering of British creativity it was a cynical and disingenuous attempt to keep a corrupt show on the road (even CDP creatives that worked on the campaign, like Lord Putnam, now regret the harm that they caused).
From the mid-sixties it was absolutely clear that the product in question caused immeasurable harm to our society and its citizens and that there was no shred of credibility in this industry’s ferocious opposition to an outright ban on tobacco promotion.
As I wrote in a letter to Campaign last month “we were wrong, we know that we were wrong and, most importantly, they know we were wrong”.
Sure, in many ways this is ancient history and thankfully one no longer has to dance around the industry avoiding the shops that take tobacco cash, indeed the last generation responsible has largely moved on from the industry. But you better believe that every time we bleat about advertising regulation to the occupants of the Palace of Westminster we are seen as the bastards that opposed the tobacco ban.
Secondly, we have to accept that society does have a right to a point of view on what we do. Advertising is so powerful in influencing people’s behaviour for good or ill and in influencing the broader cultural climate that we have to accept the citizenry and their representatives as legitimate stakeholders. Even when they are wrong and the action will have little effect
It is not clear that the prohibition of advertising for food that is high in fat, salt or sugar in children’s media will have an effect on obesity in this country. However, society has decided that it no longer finds this activity acceptable, just as it is no longer willing to tolerate fox hunting. And we have to respect that belief since society in some ways measures itself by the things that are deemed acceptable activities. Twenty years ago it was acceptable to advertise cigarettes but not condoms, nowadays we permit advertising for condoms but not cigarettes. Thats just a reflection of the broader change in society.
Thirdly I think we all need think about the debate not just in terms of which sectors can advertise but which techniques are deemed acceptable. As a father of pre-schoolers I don’t have an issue with exposing children to advertising at all but I would absolutely prohibit celebrity endorsement for products aimed at primary age children when the subtleties of this approach are not properly understood. And I have more recently advocated age recommendations for promotional activity aimed at kids. We should be clearer about which sales techniques are acceptable for specific groups that might be at risk.
And finally we should be more open to the way in which regulation can disrupt the market and create new sources of competitive advantage. As a capitalist that is the kind of thing I love – the status quo getting a good kick in the teeth. The fact that products that are not as high in fat, salt and sugar can still advertise in children’s media gives a helping hand to new competitors and reformulated brands and creates an impetus for rapid change in otherwise slow moving marketplaces.
This is far less likely to be the case if an entire category is outlawed (but you have to commit some pretty heinous crimes to get into this pickle), nevertheless as one brand or category is prevented from advertising others, more in tune with the ‘moment’, get a chance to take the limelight. And frankly when they do I’ll be waiting to help them rather than crying over spilt milk.
Just because I work in advertising doesn’t mean that I think that this powerful business building technique should be open to any product or business willy nilly as a matter of principle. I accept that society has a say in what can be advertised and how. And I wish that we might have a more measured debate about this subject than the abolitionists and meatheads want to allow us.

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45 Replies to “Can we have a more intelligent debate on regulation please?”

  1. shouldn’t they ban alcohol and junk food if they have a problem with it, rather than looking for an easy target? What’s needed is regulation of the food industry, not the marketing of the food industry. Banning advertising smacks of tokenism.
    A more imaginative administration would see what Jamie’s school dinners -marketing communication by any other name- did for the national school diet,(albeit temporarily); learn the lesson and deploy the tools.
    But that would be far too constructive. Isn’t it about time our industry represented itself? After all what is the IPA for?(… that would be a whole new debate)

  2. Incidentally has it never occurred to anyone that the rise in obesity is in part triggered by the decline in smoking?
    I am only half joking here. The practices which give rise to social problems are immensely complex – and typically involve a variety of factors, not a single product category or brand.
    But brands, being highly visible – and quite often American – are ready-made scapegoats.
    Obesity, for instance, could be attributed more to the growth of the X-Box than the Big Mac. Not to mention the car. Or the lure of the Parker Knoll. And central heating. And tabloid-generated fear of paedophilia which keeps kids indoors.
    But noone could justify an oblique ban on advertising X-Boxes (or Parker-Knoll recliners or tabloid reporting or cars or radiatiors) in the fight against obesity. And political correctness means noone will lay any blame at the feet of Italian/Indian/Chinese food (these restaurants being family owned, and ethnic families too) so once again McDonald’s gets it in the neck.
    And no other brand owner cares.
    Because, being adversarial by nature, capitalists relish any competitor brand getting kicked in the teeth. As Richard has it, “as one brand or category is prevented from advertising others, more in tune with the ‘moment’, get a chance to take the limelight. And frankly when they do I’ll be waiting to help them rather than crying over spilt milk.”
    Or, as I might rephrase it, “First they came for McDonald’s and I did not speak out because we did not have the McDonald’s account…..”

  3. Well if there is to be a debate, there ought to be a counterview.
    I’ll take your ‘poor old advertising, always the whipping boy.’ winges and raise them with some hard factual evidence :)
    The decisions by Ofcom were based on a weighty independent review by the Food Standards Authority of 30 years of academic research into the influence of food advertising on children, which concluded that:
    “1. There is a lot of food advertising to children.
    2. The advertised diet is less healthy than the recommended one.
    3. Children enjoy and engage with food promotion.
    4. Food promotion is having an effect, particularly on children’s preferences, purchase
    behaviour and consumption.
    5. This effect is independent of other factors and operates at both a brand and category level.
    This does not amount to proof of an effect, but in our view does provide sufficient evidence to conclude that an effect exists. The debate should now shift to what action is needed, and specifically to how the power of commercial marketing can be used to bring about improvements in young people’s eating.”
    I particularly like the last point – which is in line with what rory ends up saying: shouldnt agencies be chasing new advertising opportunities to promote eating more fruit/veg and less crap to kids? I’m sure some of your supermarket clients (who account for £1/3 of consumer spending) would be only too happy to stump up a budget. It’s very ‘on brand’ eg for Sainsbury ‘try something new’. I’m sure Jamie Oliver would be up for it. The new Birds Eye frozen food campaign with giles Coren is a good example of advertising the counterview, at least to mums. It shows that there is life for food brands after ‘Cap’n Birdseye.
    The general view on regulations (according to a new report interviewing corporate CEOs, out soon from Tomorrow’s Company) is that you should welcome regulation, encourage it to go faster, and use your ability to innovate to keep up as a source of competitive advantage.
    Just playing devil’s avocado

  4. It is a vitally important point – that innovative (or perhaps devious) companies will find ways to use regulation to their own advantage. Indeed tobacco advertising was absolutely dreadful until they regulated it.
    It’s the law of unintended consequences. Just as my children’s primary school operates a very effective chewing-gum promotion programme (they ban it).
    However I see this “reward for the cunning” as a further argument against regulation. For the most common strategy to adopt in response to regulation is “create confusion and hold on to the market we’ve got.”
    I would invest twice as much in my pension if they were allowed to talk straight to me. Send me a monthly statement that simply said “This month your pension is worth £80,345. Now piss off.” and I know where I am. It’s the reams of unintelligible compliance material that come with my statement that make me distrust my pension provider and render me incapable of comparing him with any other. So I buy property instead.
    In the shorter term regulation it can encourage more “creative” (or at least oblique) advertising. As the regulatory hurdles are set higher and higher, however, the innovation-dollar will slowly migrate away from advertising into design, NPD, price cutting, DM, online, events, sponsorship or whatever.
    Many of these are cheaper than advertising – hence established brands may welcome the trend – but the result for consumers will be a less competitive marketplace as established brands, their competition silenced, are spared the odd healthy slap from the invisible hand.
    (In this vein, I once made a mischievous suggestion to one of our largest utility clients that they should offer to put their entire customer base on the Mailing Preference Service, thus cutting them off from all future competitor activity. It really hurt my inner Thatcherite to suggest this but, hey, they pay the bills.)
    Meanwhile one more category disappears from our ad-breaks, until only financial services and retail are left – all the fun stuff (booze, cars, mud-wrestling, Pot Noodles) having been long banned. Ad breaks become intolerably bland. Moreover what advertising remains is so tightly restricted and spattered with caveats that it is invariably more boring than the programmes that surround it.
    Increasingly people pay to avoid it. And so the ratchet moves on one more notch.

  5. Just a brief logicians quibble with John’s argument.
    “1. There is a lot of food advertising to children.
    2. The advertised diet is less healthy than the recommended one.
    (2) contains within it the wholly unreasonable assumption that our primary purpose in eating food is to be healthy. But the main purpose of food is not to make us healthy. That is perhaps a tertiary benefit of food after providing sustenance and providing pleasure. As proof of this, it is widely known that a simple recipe for longevity is to eat very little food indeed: yet virtually noone adopts this practice.
    As the persistence of smoking shows, people are quite willing to sacrifice long-term longevity for immediate pleasure. The overwhelming drive towards healthier lifestyles is the work of doctors, a class almost entirely unqualified to tell us how to lead our lives as they are ridiculously over-exposed to ill-people and hence overstate the importance of health in almost everything.
    Doctors also tell us that exercise is important, but they seem to prefer sitting on their arses in a surgery all day waiting for ill people to travel to them.
    Say what you like about Harold Shipman, at least he did house-calls.

  6. A more intelligent debate on regulation would be good, if only there were a more intelligent debate ‘out there’ about brands that people genuinely love and hate … with reference to McDonald’s and innocent drinks, now ‘getting to know each other’ on a strictly trial basis, as revealed on innocent’s blog. Worth reading the kind of comments that innocent hardcore fans make about McD. Passionate yes, intelligent? See

  7. >I don’t think agreeing with the post and providing evidence for the point of view can be described as playing devils advocate old chap. RH
    Yes well, it’s a reaction to this from your post
    > It is not clear that the prohibition of advertising for food that is high in fat, salt or sugar in children’s media will have an effect on obesity in this country.
    The FSA/Ofcom seem pretty convinced by the scientific evidence, I think it looks pretty compelling too.
    Anyway my point was if we’re really going to debate it seriously , we might actually read the case for the prosecution, before assuming that all regulators are “anti-capitalists”
    (Nb Rory, logical quibble fair but those points belong to the FSA not me, it’s all in quotation marks)
    But yes we do all seem to agree on everyone’s final point that capitalism is fun as a spectator sport; one brands loss is anothers gain, and actually for an agency working for the pirates (eg Skype) is often more fun than the navy (eg telcos).
    The other thing none of you have raised, is that there is evidence that switching marketers efforts into non advertising media increases their effectiveness. I found some evidence of that in the case of smoking (a european report in the 1990s looking at smoking in countries that banned tobacco ads vs those that didnt) – I wrote it up in my first book. Basically in places like Germany where brands Camel went ‘underground’ doing stuff around the love parade, Camel clothing, sampling etc. cigarettes fared better & may in fact have become ‘cooler’.

  8. fine line between nanny state and free choice but if you choose to eat, drink and smoke to excess then choose to pay a premium to get your fat arse to the nhs to get a liver replacement.
    sod the brands, go for the ad agencies that find the hooks and the insight to peddle the crap. anyone want to take a stab at the top ten agencies with the worst record for socially irresponsible and negligent communications?

  9. John,
    My point is exactly to question the notion that increased regulation is bad news – as the industry knee jerkers seem to insist – and to suggest that it makes the market more dynamic because it upsets old certainties – favouring more innovative organisations.

  10. Then we agree & all I’m adding is that its the intelligent position on regulation which leading businesses eg GE are taking. But cant we disagree the secondary points; has advertising been killing people – FSA concluded it was – and yet is the unintentional effect of ad bans to drive markerters to use more effective media instead? They are much more contentious.
    Top 10 socially irresponsible could be good – that does have teeth – I’d hesitate to cast the first stone though.

  11. I think when you talk of throwing stones you have to remember that most of us work or have worked in glasshouses.
    Which agencies have never taken Tobacco cash? Perhaps AMV. But most are tainted.
    I think the problem is when people in our business don’t consider the unintended consequences of their actions, and there are many when you are dealing with something so powerful as advertising.
    Junk food vendors want people to eat their junk food, sure, but the crisis this has precipitated in society is an unintended consequence of this action.
    The one thing that Adam Lury taught me was that what we do is serious and has serious consequences and so we need to take it seriously.
    Finally I think that planners have helped to create a culture of consideration in this business because by and large we have a different perspective on life and business to our partners.
    The myth of the North London liberal planner is by and large true.

  12. I completely accept that there are enormous consequences to everything we do, but I worry that regulators always see them only 1) at one remove and 2) often through a very distorting lens of snobbery.
    Hence obesity => food => lower class food => American lower-class food => Mcdonalds.
    Climate Change => Air Travel => Mass Air Travel => easyJet.
    Pizza Express and holidays in Bhutan are mysteriously never held accountable for these problems. Nor does anyone have ethical qualms about working on the PS3 (obesity) or organic food (a cause of excessive farming) businesses.
    I am not sure I would have any problem working on a tobacco account today. Since perception of the dangers of smoking now far exceeds the reality, we can hardly believe that tobacco companies are unfairly manipulating opinion. I would be much more concerned about alcohol or, worse still, gambling where perception of the risks lags the actuality. (Besides the calvinist in me quite likes tobacco as the drug of choice for the industrious.)

  13. Perhaps we could regulate the fashion industry. Those conniving (and pretentious) bastards have got away with being largely unregulated for too long. We could regulate how much tight-fitting clothing they can sell. Specifically, we should regulate the lycra content of clothing. All those “weight challenged” people must be terribly unhappy waddling around with their muffin tops. It’s not their fault. It’s McDonalds and Top Shop.
    While we’re about it, I’d also regulate the amount of TV, wii, xbox and PS3 people can indulge in. And internet surfing. They are malicious drivers of our sedentary culture. And they’re all American. ‘Screen time’ needs urgent rationing. Serious consideration should be given to installing inhibitor chips in these items that allow one to only watch say, one hour of telly a day.
    Just two suggestions, but I don’t think we should stop there.
    I struggle to square any of this with being a ‘liberal’ planner, but what the f**k.

  14. Richard
    Thank you for bringing this up. On a purely personal level I think the work being done by Campaign and the IPA is, misguided and potentially very dangerous.
    As in all things, I don’t think we will get much inspiration on how to deal with the regulatory challenges by looking at how we have tackled these things in the past. We are more likely to learn from other industries.
    The greatest mistake our industry ever made was to tie itself to an absolutist argument around tobacco advertising. Our professional bodies consistently argued against the science that clearly showed that advertising tobacco promoted consumption.
    The problem with absolutist arguments is once you lose it once, you lose it forever.
    As a result regulators, the public and politicians (of all parties) don’t want to listen to us.
    If I was the IPA/Campaign I would issue a profound and sincere apology for defending the right to promote an addictive substance that kills people.
    At that stage, people may just sit up and take notice.
    Its a bit like what Lord Browne of BP did at Stanford in 1997 when he was the first oil CEO to state clearly and without equivocation that his company along with all oil companies was responsible for global warming. He deftly went on to make the point that we all as individuals, through our personal choices, were responsible for global warming. Over the years BP have hit home that message that we are what we do by giving consumers access to things like Ogilvy’s Webby Award Winning carbon footprint calculator.
    Therefore after the apology I would move on to accept that promotion of junk food without regulation or caveat leads to increased consumption. We are responsible for this in the industry, but we are also responsible for this as parents.
    Only by being honest and transparent will be listened to regulators and politicians. The more we hunker down and deny the science and evidence the more we will become an easy pinata for politicians, of every stripe, to punish.
    Sorry can sometimes be the hardest word.

  15. Brilliant David, absolutely briliant.
    Lets campaign for a public apology from the industry over Tobacco – far more constructive than the Action for Ads thing.
    Wonder if we could get more signatures than Campaign. And wonder whether we could get Lord Putnam behind it.
    I am putting my acronym head on right now.
    As you will have guessed you were part of the inspiration for this post old man.

  16. That’s on the money David. Why not directly challenge the perceived Campaign wisdom by giving it the same acronym as Campaign’s, just call it ‘Apologies for Ads’ or somesuch (in hindsight, not the latter – looks like you are apologising for advertising in general).

  17. Would google ads be included in a ban on junk food advertising? Would I no longer be able to punch pizza into google and get the Dominos site?
    If so, does that mean that its perfectly OK for the UK to censor the web but not for China?
    Banning ads is just an easy target. The ban on actually smoking in public places in Scotland is seemingly having a greater effect on smoking prevalence than the ad ban. After the ad ban teenage smoking rose. Since the smoking ban, health officials are predicting the eradication of lung cancer in Scotland within a generation.
    The problem is, the most logical action would be to outlaw the product itself. And with it junk food, SUV’s, alcohol and lying about on your fat arse on the sofa all weekend.
    Then we could maybe make morning aerobics compulsory for fat people.
    Wouldn’t it be great? A little middle class elite could finally control the lives of all those fat, chain-smoking, binge drinking working class oiks.
    And actually, maybe the problem isn’t the ads or the brands, maybe its the gullible consumer oiks themselves. Maybe we should sterilise them all or deport them or something. Maybe send them to China.
    Harsh, I know, but we could always apologise afterwards.

  18. This comment from dshute at DLKW got mislaid so here it is again
    Oh, you soppy old romantics. I can’t decide whether it’s the sweetest thing in the world, or just slightly unnerving that the idea that provokes the most excitement and wonder amongst advertisers is [gasp] an apology: genuinely original thought apparently, in our industry at least.
    What good would an apology really achieve? Yes, if sincere and heartfelt (and I don’t envy the copywriter tasked with pulling that one off) it’s going to tug on a few heartstrings, and may just persuade one or two people that dammit, we’ve changed – we know we were bad, but we’re better know, it wasn’t you it was us, and we promise we won’t do it again.
    I foresee two problems with that.
    The first is one of timing: you don’t have to be a hardbitten cynic to question the motives of an apology now, just as the next phase in regulation is beginning to rear its head. “Really sorry about that whole tobacco thing – our bad. Ooh – seeing as we’re here, have you got a minute to talk about junk food?”
    Secondly, I worry we’re kidding ourselves that anyone would really be listening. I wholeheartedly echo Richard’s view on the industry’s behaviour towards a potential ban on tobacco advertising – it was deplorable, and we rightly got kicked in the nuts for it. But who’s still thinking about it? I think Rory’s right – tobacco is now its own health warning (in the UK at least). For people outside of the industry, tobacco advertising is something to be discussed with warm nostalgia in one of the TV programs that pays Phil Jupitus’s mortgage. It’s the Hamlet chap, it’s those funky pyramids, it’s the fat lady in the purple dress: it’s so wrapped up in ‘good old days’ chat that Julie Andrews might as well be singing about it.
    Of course Campaign and the IPA aren’t right – to put the barricades back up and stubbornly insist that we’re right and they’re wrong just makes us look like the self-obsessed, self-important bastards that the outside world has an inkling we might be anyway. But to think that an apology’s going to make everyone like us again, and listen to what we have to say? That seems at best naive, and at worst simply a different kind of the self-delusion that Campaign is advocating. So bring on the debate – we have nothing to lose but our elasticated waistlines.

  19. Phil
    I agree with you and as a Scotsman I am really proud of what has been done up in Scotland with the ban.
    My argument is that our industry has made the mistake of denying that its actions have consequences. Denial as a strategy, defies comprehension and raises questions about our professional veracity in the minds of regulators and politicians.
    You can’t get the valid arguments you have made heard unless we acknowledge errors made in the past.
    For example, take our current IPA President who is having to make the case to MPs and regulators that regulating junk food advertising is a bad idea.
    One of his important audiences is the cross party select committe on health. This very same committee hammered Moray on his evidence about tobacco advertising and the efforts he and his agency were taking to fight tobacco advertising legislation. Go to this link here paragraph 85
    After reading that, do you honestly think they are going to believe him, and the rest of our industry, when we say regulation of junk food advertising is wrong?
    At that risk of repeating myself, sorry can sometimes be the hardest word.

  20. Please go to that link and read it all and then think about David’s question espcially in relation to the current president of the IPA (Morray McLennan of M&C Saatchi) and his credibility in fighting the Ad industry’s corner over regulation. One of my favourite quotes specifically about CDP, Mustoes, TBWA and M&C is that “in our view the many references in the papers to ways of getting round the advertising ban all serve to indicate a complete lack of any ethical perspective at the heart of the companies, and scant regard for the intent underlying the regulation”.
    If you can’t be arsed here are the three passages in which the Health Select Committee passes judgement on this industry and whether it is fit to regulate itself at all.
    88. The evidence we have reviewed from the advertising agencies leads us to conclude that, once more, voluntary agreements have served the industry well and the public badly. Regulations have been seen as hurdles to be overcome or side-stepped; legislation banning advertising as a challenge, a policy to be systematically undermined by whatever means possible. We recommend that any future regulation of marketing should be statutory, and overseen by an independent and powerful regulatory body which has the consumer’s interest at heart, such as the Tobacco Regulatory Authority which we propose below at paragraph 189.
    89. Most of the tobacco companies have sought to challenge the Government’s commitment to introduce an advertising ban in advance of the date for implementation set by the EU directive. The argument they have repeatedly advanced is that tobacco advertising does not increase consumption, it merely persuades smokers to switch brands. However, looking through the documents that the agencies themselves produced, this view is completely discredited.
    99. Our review of the copious evidence from the advertising agencies, which includes substantial quantities of market research, leads us to conclude that the advertising agencies have connived in promoting tobacco consumption, have shamelessly exploited smoking as an aspirational pursuit in ways which inevitably make it attractive to children, and have attempted to use their creative talents to undermine Government policy and evade regulation. We welcome the Government’s commitment to end all forms of tobacco advertising and sponsorship.
    Maybe we are kicking the people that did this into the long grass of the industry but we still have a collective responsibility for what went on, especially those who represent the agencies named and shamed by the Select Committee on health.
    And you bet every single advertising hater and anti adverising pressure group has a copy of this in their sticky mits every time they hear us try to make our case about the wrongness of legislative regulation.

  21. It is worth remembering that the pressure for ad bans does not usually emerge from a spontaneous outburst of public opinion. Powerful commercial forces often fund these lobbyists and campaign groups: for instance the smoking-ban lobbyists and their research were quite heavily funded by pharmaceutical companies who sought to maximise sales of nicotine patches, gum, etc.
    If I remember rightly, Coke were rather keen on the idea of prohibition.
    [Quote] Even in the wet stronghold of New York City there was an active prohibition movement, led by Norwegian church groups and African-American labor activists who believed that Prohibition would benefit workers, especially African-Americans. Tea merchants and soda fountain manufacturers also supported Prohibition, thinking a ban on alcohol would increase sales of their products.[3]
    (Interestingly Wikipedia claims the KKK were also heavily in support of Prohibition, though personally I couldn’t dress that way sober.)
    I wonder who funded the fast food ban research?
    And should a few of our clients be creating wholly bogus pseudo-charities to campaign against the legalisation of gambling advertising. I can imagine quite a few brands and categories will be badly hit if the people start squandering their money in supercasinos.
    In many cases it is not so much that givenment is banning our advertising activities: we are simply being outmarketed.

  22. Rory
    Valid point. However, I dont think it challenges my central thrust that we will never be heard unless we draw a line under the past.

  23. David, I read the link. What those agencies were doing was both scandalous and unsurprising. I’m sure we have all been there at one time or another, getting wrapped up in getting something past the BACC and only thinking of the broader ethical issues afterwards, if at all. Personally I’ve helped a high st bank appear all warm and cuddly while knowing all along that they were making money from arms trading.
    When we launched St Luke’s we commissioned an ethical audit of our company. As well as suggesting carbon-offsetting and the like, the audit challenged the behaviour of several of our clients and recommended that we fire them. If we had followed that advice we would have been out of business. Funnily enough, 12 years later some of those brands are now setting industry benchmarks for green marketing.
    If unethical business is a weed then it is a very deep-rooted one and advertising is just the above ground bit. You can lop the top off weeds but they always grow back stronger – like John G’s example of Camel getting around ad bans by launching clothing ranges and becoming even hipper as a result.
    But, if you dig out the roots then you create a culture of prohibition.
    I can’t see the benefit of apologising unless it is completely and utterly sincere and means that as an industry we will never again support any business whose ethics are questionable. Right now that could include the manufacturers of SUV’s, airlines, supermarkets who generate food miles and even TV companies who make the sofa more appealing than the park for a generation of obese kids.
    What would I do? I think a better use of our energy would be to lobby clients on the long term business advantages of doing business in a way that also does good. There’s plenty of examples of such advantages at

  24. Yes but tobacco was different. By and large most damage done by specific categories or products is an unintented consequence of their behaviour – your SUV example or airlines or supermarket food miles.
    Tobacco is a product that if used according to the manufacturers instructions kills you. And everyone working in advertising knew that. This wasn’t an unintended consequence of their actions.
    Of course at a broader level you are right that what we need to be better at is pressing the business case for what I call responsible desire.

  25. Let’s leave tobacco behind. I will happily argue it as a private individual (and Libertarian Nutter), but it is wrong for any of us to argue the case on behalf of the industry – after all the industry has always been divided on the issue, and our taint of self-interest destroys our argument anyway. Besides the best arguments (I would argue that the second-hand costs of alcohol and gambling are many times worse than those of tobacco smoke) will only upset our other clients.
    Instead let us healthily question the motives of the people lobbying for future legislation. Do they wish to solve problems of real social importance – in which case the industry and our clients will look for every opportunity to help them – using persuasion rather than coercion? Or do they have other motives – working for a competitor category, say, or driven by the need to claim a high-profile brand scalp – in which case we’ll fight them.
    Anyone who seriously wants to reduce the problem of obesity would be better advised to work with McDonald’s and their agencies than against them (if the Vegetarian Society and Innocent can work with them, so can anyone else). Genius Beth Barry argues that McDonald’s should adopt a “Get out of the House” strategy. Interestingly, seen through that lens, you can see that McD’s – and its provision of affordable food on the go – can be used to enable physical activity rather than the opposite – while benefiting both brand and cause. Better play areas, such as they have in France, would be a plus. A creative team with us wanted to invent the McPicnic for Drive-Thru customers in the summer, encouraging people to eat out of doors.
    There are 100s more ideas than these, I am sure. But far better to spend our lives generating value-add ideas of this kind than in deviously sneaking around regulation, as in the ad agency transcripts.
    For this reason I question the idea (I bought it for a while) that regulation favours the creative company over the incumbent. Actually it diverts effort from value-creation to rule-dodging, rather as insanely complex tax regimes divert effort from useful work towards funding accountants and other worthless deviousness.

  26. Richard,
    OK, I agree with you that tobacco is different. I just don’t think an apology will make much difference: we will still be an industry that competes ferociously for every £1 of income. In the case of junk food, this means proving we are smarter at selling the stuff than any other agency in town.
    I suspect junk food advertising works in much the same way as cigarette ads. I helped conduct research into tobacco advertising in the early 90’s when I worked at Strathclyde Uni. Our research led to a campaign for Embassy Regal being banned. The most damning piece of evidence we produced was kids saying that smoking can’t be all that bad otherwise the government wouldn’t allow cigarette ads.
    All those kids knew that smoking kills, it had been drummed into them by parents, teachers and health warnings on packets and ads. At the same time they wanted to believe that maybe it didn’t because smoking was so bloody cool. The advertising muddied the waters by its very presence.
    Right now, there are probably a lot of kids out there who know they shouldn’t eat junk but the stuff’s so bloody cool and the fact that the government allows ads means it can’t be all that bad.
    The Ban It bandwagon won’t stop with a ban on junk food. As you say in your intro, alcohol may be next. Then green bans might follow.
    Incidentally, I remember reading a book called Smoking is Sublime which argued that we smoke precisely because it is bad for us (Kant’s notion of sublime pleasures). If that’s true, then the Smoking Kills messages were also enticing kids to smoke.

  27. Of course if you give up smoking at age 35 or younger the effect on your longevity through having smoked is negligible. Which makes the direct marketer in me wonder why so much effort is expended in denying a glorious pleasure to the young to no real health effect. Malice on the part of the middle aged, perhaps?
    Anti smoking messages should be targeted at people aged 33. Giving up as you get older isn’t that hard. If we consider how many people in their 60s would have smoked in their 20s, the success of quitting (I think about 14% of over 60s now smoke) as people pass through middle age seems notable.
    If I were a student again, would I take up smoking? You betcha. I had no money for any other significant pleasures, and it was an incredibly efficient way of spotting and meeting the interesting people.
    Phil’s point about the risk being precisely what makes smoking cool needs to be investigated further. The risk certainly means that smoking (like motorcycling) eloquently conveys your attitude towards risk and experimentation. (A friend of mine wouldn’t even go out with non-smokers on the reasonable grounds that if they weren’t even prepared to try smoking,how adventurous were they likely to be in other departments).
    So those on-pack health warnings should really have read “Smoking isn’t too bad. Lots of respectable middle-aged people do it.”
    Thinking about it, the line “Most Doctors Don’t Smoke” was a disaster. Almost as bad as “Most Accountants don’t smoke.” I can’t think of anything better calculated to make smoking cool.

  28. Charles, good point. I was being a bit flippant. It’s interesting that in Scotland the SNP have just came to a deal with the Greens which will see them pushing through climate change regulation. The smoking ban and extended drinking laws were both ‘tested’ in Scotland before being adopted nationally.
    Rory, the Sublime book is here:
    Well worth a read, especially if you are giving up.

  29. I didn’t mean to sound worthy there Phil sorry if it came across that way. I just know that when the legislation starts to reign in carbon excessive lifestyles the ad industry will have long forgotten cigarettes and junk food. I’ve also added the sublime book to my wish list. So thanks for that.
    Rory. That’s a terrific point about targeting. When are you going to post more on your blog. You write like a Tory Grandee after a few glasses of port. Both coherent and enjoyable.

  30. I suggested it once to the COI. Write to everyone on their 35th bithday with the message “From Now on Every Cigarette Counts”.
    My other suggestion was for Niquitin (the patches brand) to target people with the ‘flu – since I had suggested (and medics backed me up) that a quit attempt was more likely to succeed if you used a bout of minor illness to lend it a headstart.
    Since GSK, owners of Niquitin, also own Beecham’s Powders, I though we had the chance of some really nifty on-pack targeting. Apparently it was illegal or something. Of course you could still use other means to reach ‘flu sufferers – Doctors’ Surgeries, Countdown, etc….
    Having children is the other great moment of truth for quit attempts. New Year’s Day, by contrast, is hopeless.
    I also think promoting a targeted approach to problems would be useful in fending off regulation. There is no point in destroying millions of pounds of business value just to prevent an obesity problem which may affect no more than 5% of kids.
    Banning a whole form of advertising to tackle niche problems is a bit too much like fluoridating water for me – giving everyone the same dosage to solve a minority issue.
    In fact, through targeted means, a few of these problems could be solved with a fraction of the McDonald’s marketing budget. (Just make the doors to fast-food outlets really narrow, for instance).
    McDonald’s have already taken a helpful step towards curing my own obesity problem by making their drive-thru lanes too narrow for my Jag.

  31. Obesity due to the cut-down on smoking? How about obesity due to the portion of the meal? When is enough enough?
    In France, there is less obesity because more people smoke and drink wine during their meals…true. But you can’t blame one for the other so blatantly.
    In Asian countries, advertising are put out much more carelessly than those in the US. Some regulations are unheard of here. But, blaming others won’t help on what you ultimately do to yourself. In most Asian cultures, eating whatever you like is obvious. Going on special diets is ridiculous. You can eat all that fatty junk food, just not so much. Everybody wants to have a good meal. But there’s no need to eat till you drop.
    I say bring on the regulators. Let them ban anything they want, because in the end it’s all artificial anyway. The society constantly changes. What was unacceptable before is acceptable today. It’s a never-ending complaint from both sides. Let’s look at it this way: the smaller the box they frame us in, the more out-of-the-box thinking it’ll require us, n’est-ce pas?

  32. Why are we talking as if McDonalds is the ONLY corporation that’s responsible for obesity?
    I appreciate that they might be a convenient ‘poster child’ for ths issue. But the request was for a more intelligent debate.
    There’s no mention of other junk food culprits. Perhaps North London ‘liberal’ planners actually hate American corporations more than they actually hate people suffering from obesity?
    And why are we talking as if obesity is entirely down to eating the wrong kind of food?
    There’s ittle or no mention of the fact that the sedentary nature of many people’s lives is just as big a contributor.
    I appreciate we’re debating here what we can regulate (i.e. we can’t regulate private lives).
    Nonetheless, a properly intelligent debate would recognise ALL the contributory factors that lead to obesity, not just those identified by OFCOM…
    and might consider the relative merits of regulation versus changing people’s sense of personal responsibilty.

  33. Grumpy, I did make this very point about fifty yards higher up the roll!
    The practices which give rise to social problems are immensely complex – and typically involve a variety of factors, not a single product category or brand.
    But brands, being highly visible – and quite often American – are ready-made scapegoats.
    Obesity, for instance, could be attributed more to the growth of the X-Box than the Big Mac. Not to mention the car. Or the lure of the Parker Knoll. And central heating. And tabloid-generated fear of paedophilia which keeps kids indoors.
    But noone could justify an oblique ban on advertising X-Boxes (or Parker-Knoll recliners or tabloid reporting or cars or radiatiors) in the fight against obesity. And political correctness means noone will lay any blame at the feet of Italian/Indian/Chinese food (these restaurants being family owned, and ethnic families too) so once again McDonald’s gets it in the neck.
    And no other brand owner cares.
    [end of quote]
    PS Glad to see someone else accusing planners of being N London pinkos. You also ask the fabulous question “Do people actually hate McDonalds more than obesity?” A even more interesting question is “do anti-smokers actually hate smoking more than cancer?” If someone had invented an entirely innocuous cigarette, would they secretly have cursed?

  34. Mr. Sutherland…
    Apologies. My attention span is rather stunted on Mondays. You did indeed make the same point – earlier and much more eloquently.
    “Do anti-smokers actually hate smoking more than cancer?” Yes, great question!
    Personally, I hate the fact that my taxes pay for the consequences of their self-inflicted harm.

  35. I am a North London pinko and I’m proud of it.
    And I probably do hate smoking more than cancer.
    But I don’t have a big problem with Mc Donalds – I just wish they made decent burgers, like I wish Starbucks knew how to make coffee.
    Does anyone in Britain make decent burgers?
    And on that tenuous link I think the misguided Captain Scott can help on this debate.
    If you remember he died a terrible death in 1912 on his return from his failed attempt to be first to the South Pole.
    There were many reasons for his failure and death. His stubborn belief in man-hauling, his refusal to kill dogs and feed them to other dogs as the Norwegians did, his poor choice of clothing, the food dumps being wrongly located etc etc. But the big problem was that he and his men were literally starving because their calorific expenditure in man hauling vastly outweighed their intake. And what were they eating? A diet amost exclusively of Pemmican which is a concentrated food consisting of dried pulverized meat, dried berries, and rendered fat – alot of pork fat. You can eat your body weight in pork fat and starve to death if your lifestyle means you burn just a few more calories than you are taking in.
    Anyway I’m off to watch Edwardian Supersize Me on telly.

  36. Maybe the market is the best regulator?
    “Unilever, the maker of Magnum and Cornetto ice- creams, yesterday said it would change its marketing policies towards children and advertise only “healthier” foods to under- 11s by the end of next year.
    The move comes as governments put pressure on food companies to restrict marketing to children to combat childhood obesity.
    Mars, the food group, said in February it would stop marketing confectionery to children under 12 by the end of the year.
    Unilever previously had a policy of not directly targeting children below the age of six. The company also said it would stop using “size zero” models and actors in advertising, responding to social concern over”excessive slimness”. FT 9th May 2007

  37. Smokers are actually net contributors to the Exchequer, partly through the tax paid on each packet of fags but even more through the lower burden they place on the pension system.
    You should be beating up joggers if it’s your taxes you’re worried about.
    By the way, did you know that the average Briton costs the NHS more in the two weeks before their death than in the rest of their entire life?

  38. McDonald’s in Hong Kong has the highest fat content in the world of McDonald’s…
    Smoking, eating, whatever, it’s all part of a sin, and people love to do sinful things. If you ask 100 people if they think cheating is wrong they’d probably all say yes. But if then you ask how many have cheated…ladies and gentlemen, put your hands down.

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