The specific context of Cameron’s assault is clear: “We saw an irresponsible media and marketing free-for-all justified on the argument that it (marketing) was good for growth – with little thought about the impact on childhood.” In other words, young dad deliberately reignites an emotive issue – childhood innocence – which readily creates empathy with voters.
But, if anything, it is the wider context of his remarks that should trouble the industry. Cameron’s barb was planted in a speech whose more general purpose was to lay the foundations for an alternative to the materialistic cult of economic growth as the only gauge of our national progress. Business success, measured by GDP, is “an incomplete way of measuring a country’s progress”, he said, and does “not show how growth is created”. Hence the establishment of a Gross National Happiness calculus, touching on such issues as our attitudes to health and education, which will shortly make its appearance via the Office of National Statistics (also responsible for measuring GDP).
Admirable sentiments no doubt, but there was a nasty spin in the language used to portray them. Inherent was the suggestion that marketing is only there to promote mindless consumerism, reckless of the social consequences.
It’s something that goes to the heart of Credos, a think-tank set up by the Advertising Association earlier this year to combat negative social perceptions about the role of marketing communications. Opinion formers – of which Cameron is the most eminent example – tend to have a very lopsided view of marketing, according to Credos director Karen Fraser. They are quick to seize upon its manipulative communications techniques – typically characterised as selling things to people who don’t need them; and slow to appreciate the wider benefits of building businesses, improving export performance, lowering prices, contributing to a plural media, diversifying economic choice and creating employment. Sometimes this can be put down to economic ignorance. And sometimes to wilful misunderstanding. After all, the industry is a useful whipping boy – especially for politicians desperate to blame complex social issues like obesity and alcohol abuse on a readily intelligible evil that will resonate with the ordinary voter.
All that said, I agree with Marketing Week editor Mark Choueke when he argues that the AA must change its language if it is to succeed in this hearts-and-minds mission. The issue is wider than the advertising industry. “Advertising” may be part of the founding mandate of the AA, and it may be the most visible and easily measurable aspect of marketing communications. But the very name is beginning to sound quaint. It’s not even – as the latest AA bulletin points out – reflective of the AA’s wider membership.
Time for a name change, to reflect a changing industry?