Tim Lefroy, chief executive of the Advertising Association, is now a very happy man – and with good reason. At last, he has found the perfect opportunity to evangelise his most cherished belief among an uncomprehending British public. And it is? The unpopular and startling notion, around which he has built the AA’s Credos thinktank, that advertising can actually do some good in society.
The improbable cause of Lefroy’s felicity is The Guardian and its eminent leftie columnist George Monbiot. Monbiot had a full-length rant the other week about the sinister, pernicious effects of advertising on our general welfare, in an article headlined ‘Advertising is a poison that demeans even love – and we’re hooked on it’.
The headline did not disappoint. Below, and at tedious length, were all the usual signs of conspiracy dementia. Apparently, we are all a prey to a small group of highly organised manipulators who “stitch” “the system of hypercapitalism” together. Were these banks, big business, lobbyists, politicians, influential journalists even? Any of these might have been applicable candidates. But, no: they are admen, exploiting the latest, devious, findings of neurobiology to control our minds.
They might wish. Anyone spending time in the chaotic, haphazard world of adland would quickly dismiss any notion that monolithic thought-control is its defining characteristic. Constant politicking and ramshackle pitches more like; it’s an industry which is riddled with insecurity. None of this, however, is of the remotest interest to Monbiot, who is hooked on The Hidden Persuaders myth. Indeed, his thesis could neatly be summarised as Vance Packard II: The Digital Upgrade.
One dividend of this foaming invective is that it has given Lefroy a rare platform to air his views in a national newspaper, by way of right of reply. Wisely, he refrains from counter-polemic. Lefroy makes no overblown claims for advertising’s social utility: “Advertising is not a drug, but neither is it a panacea. It’s not good, and it’s not bad.” All the same, he manages to gently remind us of the dystopia that might result from its absence: no media plurality, little consumer product innovation, no Google. I’d take his point a little further. We know what sort of society we’d get if advertising were entirely expunged from it, because we’ve already experienced it. It’s called the Soviet Union. And it’s chararacterised by long queues for basic consumer commodities that never turn up, shoddy industrial goods and the total suppression of media freedom by a thuggish internal security service.
Another dividend is Monbiot’s serendipitous timing. His column, and Lefroy’s response, happen to neatly coincide with the publication of Credos’ long-matured report on The Contribution of Advertising to the UK Economy. Ordinarily – fascinating though its conclusions might be for insiders – this would not be the sort of stuff to set the public’s pulse racing. But the background noise preceding it may have created more of an appetite for a few dry facts. Among them, that the advertising industry makes a £15.6bn contribution to the economy, double the figure last reported by the department of culture, media and sport in 2008; that, after electronic and software publishing, it is the biggest component in our fast-growing creative sector; and that, broadly defined, it employs 300,000 people.
Go ahead and suppress advertising, George. But in your quest for moral purity, remember the multiplying effect your action will have on UK economic output and other people’s jobs.
All right, advertising may not be a cuddly calling, and the industry certainly has its fair share of rogues and charlatans. But, then, so does journalism.