Cameron The Brand Slayer

January 25, 2013

BorgIf it weren’t for the fact David Cameron watches so little television, I would be forced to conclude he has been modelling his recent behaviour on Borg, the Viking Himbo now fronting Tesco’s advertising.

How else explain his assault on multinational brands in recent days – which has all the subtlety of Thor laying about him with his hammer after a particularly drunken binge?

Last week, it was Coca-Cola that got stomped all over, when Cameron told the House of Commons that he regarded it as his solemn paternal duty to prevent his children consuming “excessive” amounts of the sugary beverage.

This week he was at it again, telling the World Economic Forum in Davos that brands which avoided paying their fair share of corporation tax needed “to wake up and smell the coffee” – an unvarnished reference to Starbucks and those other egregious “tax dodgers” Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google (and, er, Coca-Cola). And the tirade didn’t end there: so sick and tired is the British public of the multinationals’ fiscal chicanery that Cameron has decided to make clamping down on corporate tax-avoidance a central plank of our G8 Group presidency later this year.

Whoa, Dave. Is this your idea of a soft close? Britain shut for business before you oblige us to pull out of the EU?

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Ad regulator attempts to decontaminate toxic MMR/autism controversy

August 8, 2012

You have to feel a little sorry for Guy Parker and his team at the Advertising Standards Authority. Every now and then an issue comes along with a screaming public health warning blazoned all over it – “Highly Toxic, On No Account Handle.” Yet they manfully don the protective gear and attempt to decontaminate it for the public good just the same. Knowing, all the while, that there are no heroes in these situations, only casualties.

MMR – the triple measles, mumps and Rubella (German measles) vaccination – is just such an issue. Babyjabs is an organisation, backed by the medical prestige of one Dr Richard Halvorsen, that firmly believes some of the unpleasant side-effects of the triple-jab – which include the possibility of autism – can be mitigated by the simple expedient of administering all three vaccinations individually. They don’t say single vaccinations have no side effects – they do say the side effects are less likely to occur. For instance: “It is very likely that the MMR causes autism and bowel disease in some children. It is probable that the single measles vaccine can also do this, but, if so, much more rarely than the MMR.”

Many parents persist in agreeing with these conclusions, albeit on a common-sense, non-scientific level. Much to the consternation of the UK medical establishment and the National Health Service, which for years have been attempting to stamp out a heresy that, by implication, calls into question the authority of eminent doctors, not to mention the sacrosanct commercial right of Big Pharma (in this case the saintly GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi Pasteur MSD) to flog billions of pounds-worth of the triple vaccine to the NHS.

The ASA has had to step in and slap down Babyjabs after a single anonymous complainant (possibly a Witchfinder General at the General Medical Council, but we cannot be certain) called into question the veracity of website claims about MMR’s pernicious effects.

MMR has been fraught with controversy since Dr Andrew Wakefield’s, er, seminal research into the subject surfaced in 1998. Wakefield purported to have found a definite link between the triple vaccine and the growing incidence of autism. So influential was the backwash from his research that, at one time, uptake of the MMR jab was 60% down in some parts of the country. But it was later demonstrated that Wakefield had “fixed” the results of his research and that he had, in any case, an underlying agenda at odds with dispassionate scientific inquiry. He was struck off the medical register and now quietly plies his trade in other realms.

Wakefield is not the only dangerous heretic, however. Robert F Kennedy Jnr, son of the late assassinated presidential candidate no less, has also come back into the fray with a refreshed set of allegations suggesting that a vaccine preservative containing mercury (thimerosal by name), plus the unseasonable number of vaccines pumped into kids before they are two, may have something to do with the autism syndrome. His argument depends, to some extent, upon the perceived relative absence of autism within the Pennsylvania Amish community – which is proverbially hostile to the whole idea of vaccination programmes.

It remains to be seen whether Wakefield will be viewed by future generations as one of the greatest medical fraudsters of all time, or as some kind of Christopher Columbus figure – a historic pioneer who found the wrong continent with the aid of a faulty compass.


£1.7bn global ad review is creative solution to Johnson & Johnson’s money problem

July 25, 2012

It would be nice to think that Johnson & Johnson’s newly announced review of its £1.7bn annual advertising spend was driven by a need for greater creative consistency. But it isn’t.

Money’s the thing – saving it that is. J&J may be one of the world’s biggest brands, but it’s also a company in trouble. Since 2009 J&J has suffered numerous recalls in the US, mainly of its over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol and Benadryl; but the prescription and medical devices businesses have also been hard hit. All in all, it’s said to have lost $1bn in sales, partly through bad luck and mostly through sheer incompetence.

At first it was the staff – including the marketing department – who paid, by being made surplus to requirements. Now it is the spend that’s being trimmed. Judge for yourself from the officialspeak: “Johnson & Johnson is conducting a global agency review and consolidation to build greater value and deliver innovative and fully integrated solutions for our consumer brands.” Well, they wouldn’t want less innovative solutions would they? And they could hardly be less fully integrated than they are at the moment.

In truth, there’s an easy win here for the new kid on the block, Michael Sneed – who became J&J’s top marketing (and PR) officer at the beginning of this year. There could hardly be a less efficient way of running your global marketing services than the one that exists at the moment. Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and All are at the advertising trough. It would be simpler to name a global marcoms group that isn’t on the roster.

WPP has business through JWT and AKQA; Publicis Groupe through Razorfish; Interpublic through Deutsch, Lowe, The Martin Agency and R/GA; Omnicom through DDB and BBDO; and Havas through Euro RSCG. That leaves, er, Dentsu and MDC off the list.

Sneed is a company lifer who, at various stages of his J&J career, has shown considerable sensitivity towards advertising creativity. It will be interesting to see whether this natural instinct gets overridden by the all-powerful imperative of saving the company money. Don’t expect a self-aggrandising Ewanick moment – Sneed seems too modest for that. Do expect a financial deal, of the “Team WPP” or more likely “Commonwealth” variety, that dresses up financial expediency as a coherent creative solution.

The most interesting thing about this review may be the losers. If Interpublic is among them, perhaps group CEO Michael Roth will at last seek to do a deal with Publicis Groupe. The air is certainly thick with rumours to that effect at the moment.


GlaxoSmithKline marketing scandal makes Barclays’ woes look like small change

July 4, 2012

This week, the US Justice Department fined a well-known multinational $3bn (£2bn) for serial corporate malpractice. And, in the manner of a suspended criminal sentence, it imposed on company managers – up to its chief executive – stringent measures for slashing their pay and bonuses should further illegal activity come to light.

Another bank getting the Barclays treatment? No. This is one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, GlaxoSmithKline, getting its comeuppance for inappropriately marketing a slew of prescription drugs.

The only reason we haven’t heard more is because Barclays’ former chief executive Bob Diamond is hogging the limelight, for which Glaxo CEO Sir Andrew Witty must be profoundly grateful. All Diamond and his colleagues did was to manipulate the money markets. What GSK has done, by contrast, is gamble with human lives – including children’s lives – in the hope of making a fast buck for its shareholders and management team.

It’s a grubby tale, stretching back over a decade, which involves bribery, treating, corporate bullying and wilful suppression of the truth. And an interesting definition of what appears to have passed for trade marketing in Big Pharma.

Glaxo admitted corporate misconduct over the mis-selling of three drugs, the anti-depressants Paxil (known over here as Seroxat) and Wellbutrin, plus the asthma drug Advair.

Most egregious, perhaps, was the “repositioning” of Paxil – once GSK’s best-selling drug – as safe for adolescents, when clinical trials had failed to establish any such premise. No expense was spared in covering up this inconvenient truth.

“Luxurious conferences were organised in exotic climes where paid-for scientific speakers hyped up the conclusions of dubious academic papers,” The Independent tells us.”GSK held 8 ‘Paxil forum’ events in Puerto Rico, Hawaii and California, where hundreds of doctors were treated to snorkelling, horse-riding, sailing, deep-sea fishing, balloon rides and spa treatments, and given an ‘honorarium’ of $750 in cash. The company knew it was worth paying for these kinds of boondoggles; it monitored the doctors who attended and found they significantly increased prescriptions of Paxil in the months after the event.” Note and appreciate the scientific attention to the analysis of marketing data.

And there is more. GSK published an article in a medical journal that mis-stated the drug was safe for use by children, despite being asked several times by the journal’s publisher to change the wording. (Why was the publisher not more insistent? Probably because it feared going out of business. It’s a small world, Big Pharma.) Copies of the offending article were then handed to sales reps, to help badger GPs into seeing GSK’s point of view.

In the case of Wellbutrin, GSK paid a well-known medical media star of the time, Dr Drew Pinsky, who hosted a then-popular radio show, nearly $300,000 to say nice things about it – like it could give you 60 orgasms in one night. Funnily enough, the good Doc failed to disclose to his audience, or anyone else for that matter, that he was taking the GSK shilling.

Woe betide you if you showed any scruples, however: when a GSK-funded doctor refused to suppress his own misgivings about the safety of the drug, GSK removed his funding.

What emerges about the marketing of the asthma drug Advair is its crassness. It was launched to sales reps in Las Vegas using images of slot machines – to emphasise the money they could make from bonuses. At the event, Jean-Pierre Garnier (pictured), the CEO on whose watch all these shenanigans went on, told them: “What is the number one reason why you should love to be a GSK rep? Advair’s bonus plan. Yeah!”

It’s reassuring to know our life is in their hands, isn’t it? Makes Barclays Bob look a bit of a saint by comparison.


Doctors open second line of attack on fast-foods with call for punitive “fat taxes”

April 19, 2012

It may of course be a coincidence. But I suspect not, given the close timing. No sooner has Professor Terence Stephenson, speaking on behalf of 200,000 doctors, called for a ban on “junk food” brands sponsoring sports events than up pops another prominent medic, advocating blanket “fat taxes” on soft drinks and chocolates.

Will the next step, you might wonder sardonically, be for the medical profession to emulate Oliver Cromwell and call for the banning of mince pies?

The eminent health evangelist in question is Dr Mike Rayner, of Oxford University department of health. His argument follows a well-worn formula.

It starts with the unexceptionable premise. About one in four British adults is either overweight or obese. Something needs to be done about it because it’s costing the National Health Service £5bn, he tells us.

Then comes the health warning, coated in hysterical medi-rhetoric: “We are in the grip of an obesity epidemic.” (Remember the medical profession’s headless chicken performance over Bird Flu?)

And finally, the seemingly inescapable logic of a solution: “We use taxes to discourage drinking and smoking. It raises lots of money for the Treasury and prevents people from dying too early. There is now lots of evidence that manipulating food prices could promote healthy eating.”

What prescription could be more reasonable than that – for the already over-burdened British taxpayer?

As it happens, Dr Rayner – unlike Professor Stephenson – does not disclose his attitude towards advertising these noisome products. But we can infer it from past performance, and the fact that he appears to be offering flanking support to Stephenson’s earlier attack on Government policy.

The medical profession’s enthusiastic adoption of “fat taxes” seems to owe its immediate intellectual provenance to a British Journal of Nutrition study – one of whose co-authors is Professor Susan Jebb, an eminent nutrition specialist who has been the government’s main adviser on obesity since 2007. The study specifically called for a 10% fat tax on sugary drinks and full fat milk, which would, it suggested, cut consumption and prompt a switch to healthier alternatives.

Like most of these things, the idea of “fat taxes” originated in the United States. But it has gained more traction over here following adoption, in limited measure and differing degrees, by Hungary, Denmark and France. The stringent French model is, it would seem, the one favoured by (for instance) the Royal College of Physicians: “Studies have shown that following these measures, the number of overweight children in France has dropped from 18.1% in 2000 to 15.5% in 2007,” it said, late last year

The RCP, like Rayner and other obesity experts, is increasingly frustrated by the Government’s preferred strategy of  behavioural “nudge”, which it considers woefully ineffectual.

It must be confessed this self-same Government has done itself no favours by – first of all –  abolishing one of the principal instruments of nudge, the COI; and, secondly, by plunging itself into an entirely self-generated “heated pasty tax” crisis.

If hot pasties are to be more heavily taxed, then why should the principle not be extended to other fattening foods?

The problem with this argument, logical though it seems in its own right, is the old one of quis custodiet custodes ipsos? Who, exactly, gets to decide what is harmful to our health, and therefore punitively taxable? A few pints of Coca-Cola a year is a very different matter to a systematic diet of junk-food. The medical profession thinks it knows the answer. But it does not. In cack-handedly dealing with one form of social evil it threatens to inflict on us another: bureaucratic authoritarianism. Officious red-tape, that is, to you and me; and of course to the business community, which ultimately pays all our wages. Even those of most doctors –  via the public exchequer.


Admen watch out: health Bannism is back

April 16, 2012

It’s been a while since the medical profession got onto its high horse about banning the promotion of fast-food and soft-drinks brands.

But now, sensing the increasing vulnerability of the Coalition Government, it’s charging straight for the breach.

The militant assault comes from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, an umbrella organisation which can count on the (at least passive) support of 200,000 doctors. It’s being directed by the academy’s vice-president Professor Terence Stephenson, something of a zealot in these matters.

Specifically, Stephenson wants:

  • A ban on brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s sponsoring major sporting events such as the Olympics. Carling, sponsor of the Carling Cup, also comes in for some harsh words;
  • Prohibition on the use of celebrities or cartoon figures in promoting “unhealthy” food and drink to children;
  • A safe area around schools, free from fast-food outlets;
  • “Fat taxes”, as in Scandinavia, levied on such foods;
  • Much clearer labelling on the calories, salt, sugar and fat contained therein.

Same old, same old, you may say. And you would be right. This is the “Bannist Tendency” making a not-very veiled attack on the Government’s proclaimed policy of collaborating with industry via so-called “responsibility deals”, which emphasise self-regulatory restraint rather than expensive-to-police and often-ineffectual red-tape.

When I say “ineffectual”, I should qualify that. In the short term, the proposed bans might well have a debilitating effect on commerce without achieving concomitant success in combatting national obesity. Longer term the strategy is tried and tested, however. It amounts to demonising fast-food and soft drinks in the same way the medical profession has managed to demonise smoking. At this very moment health secretary Andrew Lansley, the arch-proponent of industry “responsibility deals”, is contemplating stripping the last vestiges of marketing support from the tobacco industry with a ban on branded packaging. That’s what, in a generation’s time perhaps, the medical profession would like to see happening to Big Food brands.

Reducing the amount of salt, fat and sugar in our diet is of course a commendable aim, and it is right that the medical profession – of all special interest groups – should embrace it. But is it also right to equate the variable impact of HSSFs on our health with the addictive and truly pernicious effects of smoking? There is a matter of degree here, which does not seem to be adequately reflected in the uncompromising messianic fervour of the medical profession. Or, rather, some of the zealots who seem to have hijacked it.

Stephenson himself is a case in point. He may be an eminent paediatrician, but he also harbours some eccentric views. Among them, that second hand smoke (from tobacco) is a significant contributor to cot-deaths. He is also someone who clearly lives in a bubble blissfully sequestered from the inconvenient realities of commercial life. Here he is on the subject of football sponsorship:

“For adults, beer is a source of calories. I like going to a football match and drinking beer, but it’s the high-profile sponsorship that means that every time we mention this trophy, we mention in the same words Carling Cup.” So, let’s ban it, eh? Personally, I’m all the way with Stephenson on renaming it the “English Football League”. Period. But I do wonder where all the extra money is going to come from if we prohibit the likes of Carling, Coca-Cola and (heavy heart, here) McDonald’s from investing in sports events.

Surely, a little more personal responsibility exercised over how many HSSFs we ingest at any one time, not to mention how much exercise we take, are more salutary – and certainly less puritanical – solutions to the national obesity problem?

And, if we’re going to consider banning any advertising at all, what about reviewing the wall of money Big Pharma spends on targeting the medical profession?

Now there’s an unhealthy relationship.


Do scary anti-smoking ads really work?

March 19, 2012

The last time the Department of Health tried to put the frighteners on smokers with a television advertising campaign, it got into trouble with the Advertising Standards Authority.

Apparently, this 2009 ad was much too scary for children. And could, in the future, be screened only after 7.30 in the evening:

That scary. Makes you wonder what the ASA would think of the following campaign, which has just broken in the United States:

Gruesome is the word that comes to mind. Enough to give small children nightmares for months, if not years, to come. It’s just one execution from a $54m (about £35m) multimedia campaign launched by US government agency Centers for Disease Control. “Really goes for the trachea”, as one US journalist put it; and the other ads are hardly less “gripping”.

But do shock-tactics actually work, faced with a tobacco industry which still wields a $10bn annual marketing budget?

Surprisingly, perhaps, CDC director Thomas Frieden admits that he was once a sceptic himself, while serving as commissioner of the New York Health Department. He has since changed his views in the light of research indicating success is positively correlated to a “dose-related strategy”. In other words, the more grand guignol horror you are subjected to, the more you are likely to give up the weed.

As it happens, Frieden’s successor at the NYHD shows none of the ASA’s squeamishness about inflicting psychic damage on young viewers. “I absolutely think it’s okay for an eight-year-old to be watching messages that prevent that child from becoming a smoker, even if it’s something that the parent and the child find disturbing,” Dr Tom Farley tells CBS.

Who, I wonder, has got it right here?


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