Much self-congratulation at the Committee of Advertising Practice, which formulates the advertising regulatory code, and the Advertising Standards Authority, which enacts it, after steering through a comprehensive update of the code, that will come into force later this year.
News of their success could not have broken at a more propitious time.
The most eye-catching element in the new package is a promised crackdown on greenwash. Nothing is better guaranteed to get the public hot under the collar than bogus science used to imbue an advertising message with cheap charisma. And, as luck would have it, the ASA has just been given a prime opportunity to pillory one of its principal purveyors, in a magisterial display of the potency and impartiality of the self-regulatory system. The perpetrator in question is no less an organisation than HMG, or rather Ed Miliband’s part of it, the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
Sent down from the dock in disgrace were two press ads – part of a much wider £6m campaign – that used nursery rhymes to sensationalise a message about climate change. The ASA found that the language used to describe a future world beset by violent storms, long droughts and severe heatwaves “should have been phrased more tentatively.” Somehow, I don’t think careful use of the subjunctive mood would have had the same impact, even in the hands of skilled copywriters.
But the ASA is here addressing a wider issue than the legalistic application of language. Climate science has been forced on the defensive by an unfortunate cocktail of conspiracy and cock-up. Last year eminent climatologist Dr Phil Jones admitted that he had effaced certain inconvenient statistics which failed to fit his own dramatic theory of change. Meanwhile, the august InterGovernment Panel on Climate Change has been forced to eat humble pie after it was revealed that its authoritative claim the Himalayan glaciers will melt away by 2035 was completely erroneous.
If the science is that flaky, what business has government being so categorical in its public service campaigns? One answer may be: electioneering. The equally controversial TV version of the DECC campaign has so far escaped the censor’s pen, but has become mired in controversy of a different sort.
Ofcom, the media regulator, is currently looking into 700 complaints that the commercial was, in effect, a form of (illegal) political advertising aimed at influencing public opinion ahead of a general election. Proving, or disproving, that charge will be extremely difficult since, unlike the effect of drink on driving, or of a high fat, sugar and salt intake on health, the facts of climatology are not open to strict empirical investigation.