Ad industry puts the boot into ‘treacherous’ Chartered Institute of Marketing research

June 8, 2012

An amusing industry spat has broken out between the Chartered Institute of Marketing and just about everyone else over the way the industry has been handling the vexed issue of marketing to children.

One year into the Bailey era, the CIM has released research that apparently shows 85% of parents are unaware of the Government-sponsored and industry-sanctioned ParentPort website – a forum that enables parents to vent their spleen at the way marketers have been commercialising and sexualising childhood. This, from one of its own, is an unforgivable undercut to the belly of the industry, which claims to have made Stakhanovite progress in grappling with an issue in which David Cameron has taken a highly personal interest.

The result has been uproar, with other industry bodies jostling to put the boot into the CIM research.

First to weigh in with apoplectic energy was the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA), the principal trade body for clients.

The riposte from ISBA’s director of public affairs Ian Twinn was masterly in its use of cutting irony: “ISBA is an active supporter of the industry pledge on the use of peer-to-peer marketing, along with many leading advertisers and media, but sadly the CIM remained aloof from the collective efforts of the wider industry.” Which was very silly of it, because now it’s going to enjoy zero support for its views.

Next up, and in similarly sarcastic frame of mind, is the Advertising Association, which represents clients, agencies and media. This week’s newsletter thunders:

“Thank goodness that advertising think-tank Credos has already done some far more thorough work on the same topic. Are advertising and marketing of concern to parents? Yes. But are they the biggest concern? Not by a very long shot. Are parents less concerned when rules and real life ads are explained in context? Yes they are. Should advertising respond? You bet – and we have. Ask (former AA chairman) Mark Lund.”

Industry regulator the Advertising Standards Authority has confined itself to a more diplomatic rebuke: “The work that regulators, including the ASA, continue to undertake in responding positively to the recommendations in the Bailey review (Letting Children Be Children) has been welcomed by government as well as family and parenting groups.” Subtext: ‘So what in God’s name do you people over at CIM think you are playing at?’

I’m beginning to feel sorry for David Thorp, CIM’s director of research. Just trying to help, eh, David?

How The Guardian helped to make Tim Lefroy’s case for the advertising industry

November 4, 2011

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.

How far should advertising be allowed to airbrush reality?

August 19, 2011

When was the last time we had an old-fashioned row over the pernicious effect of advertising on bulging waistlines, cyrrhotic livers and diseased lungs? Well over a year ago, I would guess. Thanks to a change of political regime and, more importantly perhaps, a tightening of public purse strings, many of the advertising industry’s bêtes noires (for which read single-issue NGOs and pressure groups) have – for the time being – beat a retreat to their burrows.

One resilient exception is the vexed issue of airbrushing, which just won’t go away. Should our model images – whether celebrity or mannequin – reveal their true selves, warts and all? Or should they be allowed to convey, thanks to the alchemy of digital manipulation, an idealised perfection? And if the latter, where do we draw the line?

Vintage image manipulation: Henry VIII fell for it

It has to be said, this is not exactly a fresh issue. The vintage victim of visual misrepresentation was Henry VIII – who became understandably incandescent on discovering his bride-to-be, the svelte young Duchess of Cleves portrayed by court painter Hans Holbein, was in the flesh a wholly unprepossessing ‘Mare of Flanders’.

Much more recently, the charge has been led by Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson, who claimed L’Oréal’s scalp when she persuaded the Advertising Standards Authority that the cosmetics company had gone over the top in representing actress Julia Roberts and supermodel Christy Turlington as airbrushed examples of an impossible beauty.

Of the two, Henry had the better case: Holbein’s portrait blatantly lied. L’Oréal, on the other hand, might reasonably contend (and in fact did, in so many words) that it is in the business of portraying unattainable beauty: it sells a dream, not the fleshly reality. Swinson’s point, and presumably the ASA’s in adjudicating against the campaign, is that the images are of such unblemished perfection that young females – slavishly devoted to celebrity culture – will feel their own bodies wholly inadequate by comparison.

Strangely, what no one has done is to ask the target market itself. Until now that is. Out of Credos, the Advertising Association’s recently founded think tank, comes a new piece of research that tackles the attitudes of 10-21 year-old girls and their mothers towards advertising manipulation. On the face of it (the results have yet to be formally published), the mums seem a lot more outraged than their daughters, who display a cynical insouciance towards the whole business.

In a spirit of mischievous inquiry, AdMatters – the AA’s online house magazine – has decided to extend the parameters of Credos’ research to all comers. Equally mischievously, I pass on their proposal:

“We at AdMatters would like to conduct some research of our own. The Credos survey asked girls aged 10 to 21: which of the models below would you use in an ad aimed at “people like you”?



“Now we’d like to hear from you, our loyal readers. We care not what age or gender you are, merely that you are a person and buy things. Choose your favourite (1-4, left-right) and tweet @ad_association, with #bikinis. Results may or may not be published.”

Jeremy Bullmore – age cannot wither him

April 14, 2011

I wonder what Jeremy Bullmore will say when he steps up to receive his Mackintosh Medal at the Advertising Association President’s dinner on June 15th?

My guess is the address will be Gettysberg-like in its brevity and fluency. It will contain a modest disavowal of his personal achievement, followed by a number of wry observations on the industry he has served with distinction since 1954.

It would be presumptuous to second-guess what these might be, but one theme which readily presents itself for a bit of gentle ribbing is the medal itself. If there have been 37 awards in total since the scheme was instituted in 1951, why is it that only 8 of them have been bestowed in the last 30 years? It’s possible that there was a restrictive rule change that happened about 1980, of which I am unaware. This was certainly the case with the most distinguished service award of them all, the Victoria Cross. At the time of its inception, during the Crimean War, medals were handed out with a gusto never matched in subsequent generations. For good reason: the Queen’s advisors, worried by incipient medal inflation, decided to make the selection criteria much more rigorous.

Let’s hope that’s the case with the Mackintosh Medal as well. Because the alternative is almost unthinkable. Is the advertising industry of the past 30 years only one quarter as talented as the generation which preceded it? Although there have been a number of deserving recent recipients (Archie Pitcher, David Bernstein and Ron Miller among them), a few of us would certainly warm to that suggestion. The industry is simply less entrepreneurial, lively – in a word, fun – than it was 30 years ago. Instead of personalities, we have procurement and other buttoned-down business processes; instead of instinct and intuition, we have the great god ROI. Worryingly, it’s a less attractive place for talented graduates; it’s a less remunerative one, too – compared at least to the siren attractions of management consultancy.

But wait a minute, you say. Isn’t the current Bullmore award living contradiction of that argument? In an age of dull specialists, Bullmore surely approximates to Renaissance man? (He’s certainly got the gentlemanly “sprezzatura”; I’m not so sure about the archery, the singing and the dancing, but do know that he qualified for his pilot’s licence when he was about 60.)

Well, yes indeed. Yet I’m not alone in wondering why Bullmore has had to wait until he is 82 to receive this long-merited award. Conceivably, a part of it may be personal reluctance to accept the honour: becoming a formal industry “treasure” can be tiresome and perhaps a little uncomfortable. Bullmore, for all his establishment credentials – creative director and chairman of JWT, co-founder of account planning, chairman of the AA – retains an inscrutable air of ironic detachment. It’s best illustrated by his sense of humour: lapidary in print, lateral and quick-witted in action. There must be plenty who remember his bravura performance as after-dinner speaker at the annual Marketing Society conference bash a while ago, during which – with the aid of a pair of oversized dice, all 12 sides of which bore a single, differentiated word –  he graphically illustrated the severe mental limitations of those who aspire to name conferences. However, my favourite Bullmore anecdote dates to a few years beforehand, when he was still chairman of JWT. A speech coach, who was hoping to peddle her wares to the agency, had managed to engineer an interview with him. Finding herself on the wrong side of his famous verbal dexterity, and being an actress by training, she decided to wrongfoot him with the melodramatic ruse of throwing herself to the floor and crawling under his desk while he was still seated there. Without a moment’s hesitation, Bullmore crawled under the desk to join her: “Have you lost something?” he asked.

Anyway, back to the point. “Industry sage” is an overworked epiphet, but in Bullmore’s case it’s entirely deserved. If you still don’t believe me have a look at this essay, written as a foreword to a WPP annual report and entitled: “If We Choose to Believe What Emerson Didn’t Say, Then We’re All Doomed.”  It’s on the uses and abuses of marketing. They don’t make them like that any more.

£1bn Big Society ad plan founders on small matter of who pays

February 1, 2011

No one should blame Steve Hilton, Downing Street head of policy, for thinking Big. That, after all, is one of the things he is paid to do. What worries me is the lack of detail in his Big Picture. He’s evidently a landscape man, a pointillist who leaves other people to join up the dots and make sense of it all.

Except they can’t. How are hard-pressed GPs to serve the needs of their patients while simultaneously doubling up as the NHS’ new frontline bureaucrats? Likewise the advertising business, which believes the government is trying to pull a fast one on it. Why should it be expected to shoulder the burden of a hollowed-out COI, simply out of public duty?

As one industry luminary told me recently: “The rhetoric is classic Big Society, all about community spirit. The reality is likely to be a centralised bureaucracy – under the aegis of this so-called Ad Council – which will be even bigger than the COI’s used to be. And we’ll be asked to pick up part of the tab. Not a good idea. Don’t we do enough already with initiatives like Media Trust, pro bono work and CSR – without propping up the government’s propaganda department?”

In fact, the Communications Review – as it is grandly called in the Cabinet Office – ranges rather more widely than the COI’s current remit (known in Whitehall lingo as government direct communications). It is this broader canvas that a scratch committee of the Good and the Wise – among them Sir Martin Sorrell, Martha Lane-Fox, Robin Wight, David Abraham and Amanda Mackenzie – has been convoked to consider. The schedule is tight. The committee was announced  in mid-January and I hear that Matt Tee, the Cabinet Office permanent secretary chairing it – who is soon to be on his way – would like a result by the end  of this month. Yet the first serious meeting took place only yesterday and detail, according to one participant, remains light. Has anyone else got the impression that this is simply a rubber-stamp body?

What other things might it consider, beyond the future of the COI? Well, total government spend on communications dwarfs the COI’s £540m budget when it was in its pomp. One informed estimate puts it at over £1bn annually. Consisting of, other than scaled-down government direct communications? To give the flavour, there are something like 7,000 people permanently employed in communications across various government departments. And massive contracts out there that the COI no longer gets a sniff of, because they now operate directly out of  the relevant department of state. One such is a 10-year communications contract covering recruitment across all three arms of the Forces. “The Ministry of Defence can’t even manage to build its battleships within budget, so God knows what it’s doing in an area where it has no competence whatsoever,”  a source tells me. “It’s crazy, there are no rules.”

Then, of course, there’s the future ownership of Government media vehicles, such as DirectGov, to consider…

The ambition of this Government is mind-boggling. But so is its poor grasp of detail.

Should the Advertising Association change the name of its game?

December 2, 2010

David Cameron’s studied attack on marketers’ behaviour last week has stirred up an anguished debate about the industry’s status and social purpose.

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?

Small-minded policy sets agenda for Big Society demands on advertising industry

November 10, 2010

No one could make it up. You’re a new government pledged to introduce sweeping efficiencies to the way Whitehall is run. One of your first moves is to seek out an experienced taskforce leader universally admired for his managerial track-record. Instead, you pick Ian Watmore – a technocrat whose most recent achievement has been an inglorious stint as ceo of the Football Association (itself probably the most dysfunctional governing body known to man). And, just to rub everyone’s nose in it – especially the many about to receive their P45s – you award him a prime minister’s salary of £142,500.

Watmore is in day-to-day charge of the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Unit, and works closely with Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude and Treasury minister Danny Alexander to ensure there is a coordinated approach to tackling waste in government departments. This week it launched its plans for (inter alia) a new model government advertising programme that will involve  a “payment by results model, using government channels, and a US-style Ad Council”.

Perhaps because the wording is cryptic to the point of ambiguity, there is enough there to offend just about anyone who might be instrumental in making the policy succeed. Payment by results, for example, could well be code for no fee upfront to any agency involved in government marcoms; at very least it suggests arduous negotiation over how best to evaluate the tricky issue of behavioural change.

Then again, what exactly are “government channels”, and what sort of substitute are they for the commercial media they must to some extent supplant? The merest suggestion that the BBC is a “government channel” would provoke a furious debate over its independence. ITV wouldn’t be too chuffed either, at the prospect of all that lost revenue. But if not the BBC, then what else could this mysterious phrase encompass? Hospital and doctors’ waiting rooms, perhaps – although they’re not exactly the backbone of a national media strategy.

But the pièce de resistance is surely the “Ad Council” idea, which shows a frightening naivety about the very nature of advertising. If the Council is supposed to be a low-cost replacement vehicle for the Central Office of Information, then Watmore and his ministerial chums should think again. Something which was set up in 1941 in the heated aftermath of Pearl Harbour (highlight: the Smokey Bear campaign, devised to alert Americans to the dangers of the Japanese deliberately starting forest fires by shelling the US coastline) is hardly an appropriate model for today’s more sophisticated communications needs. The Ad Council lingers on, but as a charity not a government body – still less one that delivers government advertising.

Industry reaction to the proposals has been a barely suppressed anger. And for several good reasons. First, although the government is making great play of consulting the industry, the feeling is that this consultation is merely lip-service; the reality is an ideological blueprint being imposed from above, to which industry must accede. Secondly, there is exasperation at the idea of the advertising and communications business being expected to subsidise government messages; isn’t it doing enough already with such initiatives as Business4Life and “Why let good times go bad”? Thirdly, there is concern that the government’s Big Ask will suck the life out of genuine pro bono work for charities – performed by agencies already teetering on the edge of compassion-fatigue.

UPDATE 2/12/10. Someone seems to have persuaded Francis Maude that abolishing the COI and substituting a pro-bono US-style Ad Council would be a daft idea. At any rate, the rhetoric has been toned down. There’s no more talk of ‘abolition’, simply scaling down its operations and where possible devolving them to industry partnerships.

%d bloggers like this: