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Sodastream ad controversy bubbles on

December 5, 2012

Sodastream adWhatever are the people at Sodastream complaining about? Having their ad pulled from television by the donkeys at Clearcast, the TV advertising vetting service, is a gift. It’s the sort of thing Rupert Howell and his team at HHCL used to have wet dreams about – the possibility of the regulator stepping in and banning their latest offering for Tango. Think of the attendant publicity, a priceless multiple of the original advertising budget.

And all the more so in Sodastream’s case. Back then, in the Tango era, YouTube and the viral were waiting to be discovered. What’s more Sodastream seems to have a case based upon rectitude rather than meretricious provocation. Any reasonable man on the Clapham omnibus would have difficulty in understanding the legitimacy of Clearcast’s complaint. Judge for yourselves:

What I see in this ad is each squirt of Sodastream saving you (and the environment) the cost of thousands of eco-unfriendly glass bottles a year. The claim is a trifle exaggerated perhaps, unless that squirt is a metaphorical one signifying a year’s usage of the soda-water maker, but its basis is surely unexceptionable. To any, that is, but those sitting in judgement at Clearcast, which represents the 5 major UK commercial TV companies.

And which bit of the governing Code of Advertising Practice (CAP), do the regulators believe Sodastream has transgressed? Well not, interestingly, 3.12   “Advertisements must not mislead by exaggerating the capability or performance of a product or service.” No, they’ve gone for:  3.42  “Advertisements must not discredit or denigrate another product, advertiser or advertisement or a trade mark, trade name or other distinguishing mark.”

Come again? Let’s look at that ad, in slow motion. Where’s the “product, advertiser or advertisement or a trade mark, trade name or other distinguishing mark”  – unless that last be a glass bottle? I’m one with Fiona Hope – the former Coke executive ultimately in charge of Sodastream’s UK advertising – here: it’s very hard to see how Clearcast, and subsequently its appeal committee, a) arrived at the notion that the ad “denigrates” the bottled drinks industry; and b) in what way article 3.42 of CAP is relevant justification for that view. Oddest of all is the fact that nowhere else in the world has the Sodastream campaign, devised by Alex Bogusky’s new advertising vehicle Common, fallen foul of the regulatory authorities.

One possible explanation for Clearcast’s bizarre behaviour is that the advisory committee suspected Bogusky of mounting a veiled assault on Coca-Cola – no small TV advertiser. As is well known, Bogusky – the former “B” in CP+B – was once creative servitor of the Coke Zero account. Now the breakaway wunderkind – and healthy-living freak – seems intent on war to the knife against his former paymaster. Note, for instance, this recent video for the Center for Science in the Public Interest that pillories Coke in all but name.

Clearcast, as a matter of tactics, would surely have been better advised to let the Sodastream ad air and allow the “bottled drinks industry” (whatever that may be) to complain to the Advertising Standards Authority – the proper forum for this kind of debate. Instead, the stubborn intransigence of its appeals committee has left Clearcast staked out in an indefensible Alamo.

Roll on Hope’s legal challenge to Clearcast’s judgement. Whichever way it goes, Sodastream can be confident of acres of free publicity – which should help UK sales no end.

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L’Oréal photo “shopping” Dior to the ASA? A case of the pot calling the kettle black

October 24, 2012

No surprise that the Advertising Standards Authority has banned another beauty ad – this time Black Swan Actress Natalie Portman modelling Christian Dior’s mascara, on account of her eyelashes being airbrushed to artificial perfection.

Much more interesting is the fact that the complainant is not some earnest advocate of “real beauty” and, er, truth in advertising, but Dior’s deadly rival in the cosmetics business, L’Oréal.

Pretty rich, all things considered: as a manipulator of the truth, L’Oréal takes some beating. Readers of this blog will recall the case of Cheryl Cole’s false locks, and Beyoncé’s preternaturally “latte” skin tint. They may also have noted a series of ASA bans over the last year or two affecting L’Oréal ads featuring Rachel Weisz, Christy Turlington, Julia Roberts and Penelope Cruz: in fact, just about every female brand ambassador L’Oréal has ever used. Although, come to think of it, no one, so far as I know, has yet got round to checking the hair-roots of Andie MacDowell, L’Oréal’s recruiting sergeant in the eternal war against the Greys, to see whether it’s actually a wig she is wearing.

Apologists for L’Oréal will no doubt tell their critics to get real: they are merely working in a long and dishonourable tradition of deception. Perfect beauty is by definition impossible to attain and when women strive for it, they don’t want it represented by a warts-and-all model but by a heavenly idealisation.

Nevertheless, L’Oréal’s hypocritical assault on Dior plumbs new depths of cynicism. Compared with its own systematic distortion of visual reality, Dior’s misdemeanour – which consisted of photoshopping La Portman’s individual lashes – is a mere peccadillo.

Playing Goody Two-Shoes may yet boomerang upon L’Oréal. Unless it really has turned over a new leaf, which I doubt.


Will the real Grant Shapps please stand up

October 6, 2012

The Advertising Standards Authority must be rueing the day they had their remit extended to website jurisdiction, after unwittingly becoming a political football in the poisonous fracas over Tory Party chairman Grant Shapps’ personal integrity.

It all began innocuously enough when blogger The Plashing Vole drew our attention to the upwardly mobile Tory minister’s apparently harmless multiple personality disorder. In his younger days, Mr Shapps had posed as a certain “Michael Green”, web entrepreneur and wheeler-dealer millionaire.

However, Mr Green, unlike Mr Shapps, was far from being a person of stainless reputation. Mr Green’s line of work was creating internet companies like howtocorp.com which peddled “Self Help” and “Get Rich Quickly” software packages at $500 a pop, rather in the manner of snake-oil salesmen and the travelling apothecaries of the Wild West. By way of example, one of How To Corp’s top products was something called TrafficPaymaster, which purported to bring gullible or unscrupulous customers instant riches by “scraping” – or, to use the vernacular, “plagiarising” – other people’s web content and claiming the resultant Google-generated ad revenue. Google has reprimanded TrafficPaymaster for being ‘unethical’, though it was not – I hasten to add – actually acting illegally.

Michael Green’s websites have now disappeared from the internet and Mr Shapps assures us that he has long since overcome the Green personality psychosis. Part of the therapy has involved displacing Green’s identity onto his wife Belinda, who has manfully managed the internet marketing company all on her own since 2008.

Alas, there has been an occasional relapse. In 2010, for instance, Michael popped up as the author of a book called How to Bounce Back from Recession, replete with Samuel Smiles-style self-help platitudes and lots of ‘$20,000 in 20 days’ guarantees.

The exposure of a ‘Michael Green’ relapse might be considered embarrassment enough for a Tory politician shinning up the greasy political pole, but there was worse to come.

Mr Vole, aka Dr Aidan Byrne, senior lecturer in English, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wolverhampton and fencing master extraordinaire, has descried a further Shapps alter ego in the person of “Sebastian Fox”. It turns out Mr Fox has taken a proprietorial interest in How To Corp, to the extent that the website is now called Sebastian Fox’s How to Corp – The Home of Great Toolkits on the Net.

Vole – and he cannot be alone in this – felt such conduct unbecoming of a former, and no doubt future, minister of the crown.

“After a bit of digging,” he tells us, “I decided that the enthusiastic endorsements by happy customers of HowToCorp might be just as fictional as Grant’s alter egos.” So, he complained to the ASA about it. And great was his joy when they agreed to investigate: “I have a reply from the ASA. They’re going to conduct a proper investigation. This might be a little uncomfortable for Shapps and his wife Belinda. They will have to demonstrate the existence of Fox, Green and the endorsers… which might be a tad difficult.”

That was on September 28th, and things have moved on a bit since then. The ASA have got into a state of high dudgeon over Dr Vole sharing with his readers their “confidential” missive to him and are threatening to can the investigation. All trace of Sebastian Fox’s How to Corp now seems to have been expunged from the internet, although readers eager for an insight may treasure this memento on YouTube:

Meantime, Shapps is at the centre of a media circus, and not enjoying every minute of it. In fact, he’s acting like a cornered wild beast, lashing out at anyone with the temerity to have a go at him – Ed Milliband being the latest victim. Not surprisingly really: in the light of these revelations, we must at best regard Shapps as slightly crackers, and at worst, downright dodgy. Is this the kind of man who should be put in a position of public trust?

And it’s not just Shapps’ conduct that ought to be taken into consideration. He is part of a pattern – of bad judgement on the part of David Cameron. Or, as Volely puts it:

So far we’ve had David Laws fiddling his expenses. Jeremy Hunt hides between trees and secretly promotes the interests of Rupert Murdoch over the public good, Michael Gove using his wife’s email address to hide his dodgy and partisan dealings in the education sphere (in an attempt to evade the Freedom of Information Act), and Liam Fox forced to resign after he failed to make any distinction between his friends’ arms-dealing and intelligence businesses, sinister military-industrial pressure groups and his responsibilities as a government minister.

May I respectfully add to this compendious catalogue the name of  Shapps’ immediate predecessor as Party chairman, Baroness Warsi?

You’ve scored a palpable hit, Dr Byrne. Just what’s needed before the annual party conference.


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.


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?


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?


Advertising industry sheds crocodile tears over Steve Hilton’s departure

March 6, 2012

Few in the ad industry will lament the departure of Steve “Yoda” Hilton, David Cameron’s director of strategy. Indeed, such is the relief that he is going, some would willingly pack the diminutive “blue-sky” thinker’s bags, as he contemplates a year’s ‘sabbatical’ with his family in California. Politically speaking, California is the sunny side of Siberia.

Why good riddance? Well, the word that best sums up Hilton’s relationship with the ad industry is “renegade”.

Although Hilton’s association with Cameron and the Tory party predates the 1992 election campaign, most of his subsequent years were spent in the service of advertising, the career that actually earned him a living. Hilton quickly hooked up with Maurice Saatchi, who professed to see in young Steve a kind of son: “No one reminds me as much of me when young as Steve”, he is reputed to have said. And the admiration was mutual. Steve dutifully followed Maurice from Saatchi & Saatchi to breakaway M&C Saatchi as a kind of intellectual bag-carrier. Hilton’s ability to think “out of the box” or perhaps more accurately, “to get out of his box”, soon became apparent with his contribution to the 1997 election campaign. The “Demon Eyes” poster was certainly visually arresting and highly memorable, but trying to make the then-saintly Tony Blair into the Devil Incarnate probably did more to win votes for Labour than for the party originating it. This episode would seem to underline an abiding truth about Hilton’s career: that high intelligence and original thinking are no guarantee of common sense.

Never mind. After 13 years of hard Labour, which saw the 2002 ban on cigarette advertising followed in 2007 by severe TV restrictions on foods high in fat, salt and sugar, and much muttering about out-of-control drinks advertising, the ad industry seemed to have every reason to pop the corks when it emerged that one of their own was to become the man officially in charge of David Cameron’s brain.

How wrong they all were. Had they done their homework more carefully they would have found our man wasn’t the pragmatic trimmer everyone hoped he might be. A Steve Hilton blog post from as early as 2004, entitled “Will sexual marketing be the next consumer backlash?”, espoused some rather unfashionable, untraditionalist opinions on the matter of “the relentless drive by big businesses to sexualise small children, ageing them prematurely in the process”, while denouncing the “sexual predators of the advertising industry” for good measure.

Ring a bell? “The Bailey Report”, says one insider, “Appears to have taken its brief directly from Steve Hilton’s old blog.” Too right, and laudable though the principles informing Reg Bailey’s report are, what a nightmare they have proved to implement. The regulators have gone into puritanical overdrive, with a zeal reminiscent of the Salem witch trials. Practically any female flesh exposed in a public place (ie, on posters) is now regarded as a potential contaminant of young minds – as the recent case of the Advertising Standards Authority versus Marks & Spencer only too vividly reminded us.

However, the Bailey Report and its aftermath are a mooncast shadow when compared with Hilton’s other bequest to the ad industry. Fairly or not, Hilton’s blue-sky thinking is blamed for the ultimate destruction of the Central Office of Information. For which read a £540m-a-year ad industry gravy-train.

Pinning the blame on a single person for what may yet turn out to be a government-wide communications disaster zone might seem a little harsh. After all, there are plenty of available villains – if that’s what they are – from Francis Maude to half the cabinet office. And yet the suspicion lingers that Hilton somehow gave Maude the intellectual confidence to take an axe to the venerable institution in the first place, with his bizarre proposal for a spare and minimalist Ad Council to displace the heavily bureaucratic COI.


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