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.


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.


EC chief will sanction eavesdropping online if admen agree to behave themselves

October 22, 2011

Ever heard of Robert Madelin? The chances are you have not. Don’t worry, it won’t hold you back in life. Unless you happen to be a major advertiser or senior advertising executive. In which case, you should be ashamed of your ignorance.

Forget the Bailey Report, forget erotically charged images on posters. The frontiers of commercial freedom have already moved to a more strategic battle-front. One where the weapons of choice are electronic spies and surveillance.

If advertisers win this battle, the prize is very great. Using what is termed “behavioural targeting” – (sometimes “behavioural analytics” or “online tracking”, but let’s call it BT for the sake of simplicity) – they will be able to plot the course of any internet journey an individual ever makes. True, they won’t be allowed to know that individual’s real name, date of birth or physical address. But they will, by inference, be able to draw over time an incredibly intimate portrait of his or her most heartfelt material desires.

BT is, or rather will be, infinitely more valuable to advertisers than their best current tool, contextual advertising – which relies upon careful targeting of web-page content rather than anything known about the disposition of its visitor. Andrew Walmsley, a noted industry expert on the subject, is in no doubt that BT will supplant demographics-based contextual advertising:

We’re still going to see demographics used online, but principally so it can be benchmarked against other media. But, just as we sometimes hear the Fahrenheit temperature given on the weather forecast, it’s really just for the old folks.

His article is, by the way, a useful reminder that not all BT is the same: there are at least six varieties, of varying potency.

So, win-win: bring it on. Except, of course, that BT is deeply invasive of individual privacy. Technically, it relies upon access to an electronic spy – a special kind of cookie – planted in the heart of every individual’s hard-disk drive. Without consent, its exploitation could be considered not only an infringement of the Data Protection Act, but the wider European Human Rights Act. Many civil rights advocates would go further and invoke the shade of George Orwell. Unregulated, information acquired through online tracking could pass into the hands of shady, unlicensed third-party operators – for example, totalitarian-minded apparatchiks or deeply unscrupulous businessmen – with who knows what consequences for our civil liberties.

I come back to Madelin. Who is he? None other than the director general of Information Society and Media, European Commission (EC/INFSO for short). In other words, the senior civil servant in charge of the Brussels bureau concerned, among other things, with reconciling the needs – commerce among them – of the information society and EU civil liberties.

One of Madelin’s unenviable tasks is to act as ringmaster in the interpretation of a new ePrivacy Directive, promulgated in May this year but only fully effective from next spring.

A key bone of contention between the two warring factions he must conciliate – let’s call them “industry” and “civil society”, because that’s what they call themselves – is whether the new legislation actually requires “prior informed consent” being given to any organisations wishing to place or access files stored on a personal computer. And if so, just what definition is placed on the term ‘file’.

An extreme interpretation of these new rules would mean unmitigated triumph for the privacy lobby. Every time a cookie (not all of which are concerned with online tracking, of course) came up, it would have to be accompanied by a pop-up demanding instant consent or denial. Tedious in the extreme for the online user, and disastrous for industry.

The more nuanced civil society position seems to be an “Opt In” choice for the individual user, backed by  statutory legislation, but applicable only to those cookies capable of commercial online tracking.

Not surprisingly industry, whose position has been articulated by the Internet Advertising Bureau and something called EASA (European Advertising Standards Alliance), is having none of this.

It believes the civil society stance is flawed and naive. Specifically, the privacy lobbyists fail to understand that the free advantages we enjoy on the internet these days  – such as email, news, social networking, maps, entertainment – have only come about because they have been subsidised by advertising revenue. In this sense, BT is merely “the next stage” in a process which has been going on for two decades.

Worse, what lurks behind the civil society position is not so much a concern for advancing individual privacy as a profoundly hostile attitude to commerce – which is regarded as sinister and manipulative.

Industry is not arguing there should be no restrictions on BT, merely that they should be – you guessed – minimal and self-regulated; in fact, drawn up on the British ‘voluntary’ model of advertising regulation. It disputes that the “informed consent” required by the new legislation need be “prior”. Hence its adoption of what we might call an “Opt Out” strategy.

Put simply, the industry proposal amounts to a website where consumers can block online tracking by going through a long list of advertisers (those at least signing up to the IAB initiative) and clicking on check boxes. This mechanism will be identified by an icon appearing on sites where commercial tracking technology (particularly third-party cookies) is being used. And promoted along the lines of ‘better technology leads to a better life; but you, the consumer, remain in control’.

There is some doubt – even within the industry camp – that the IAB-devised plan will be enough to turn the trick on its own. Nevertheless, industry is becoming increasingly confident that is has won the day, barring a few concessions.

This confidence was backlit a few months ago by some extraordinary shenanigans in Brussels, when one member of the civil society faction stomped out of a Madelin-chaired committee meeting and subsequently accused Madelin of being “captured by industry“.

What this seems to mean is that Madelin has indeed come down in favour of Opt Out. But there will be a price to pay. It will include an open, independent, audit to which advertisers will have to submit themselves; total transparency (whatever that means, exactly) in their dealings; and an effective consumer tribunal for handling any complaints.

A key voice in all of this will be that of Chris Graham, the UK Information Commissioner and – as former chief executive of the Advertising Standards Authority – something of an expert on how the self-regulatory system works. (Purely coincidentally, the ASA is likely to be the UK  regulator if Opt Out prevails.)

Graham has yet to pronounce ex cathedra on the subject. But the broadly benign texture of his views can be gauged by a visit to the ICO website, where the talk is of the industry facing up to ‘transparency’ and ‘independent audits’.

My understanding is that the advertising industry is being given a few more months’ grace to define its regulatory position satisfactorily. Failing which, Madelin will move down the path to statutory legislation. As can be imagined, every sinew will be stretched to ensure he does not feel the need to do so.

Before leaving this convoluted subject, it might be of passing interest to hear what the punter, rather than self-appointed experts speaking on his behalf, thinks about BT.

Handily, McCann Erickson has just published a relevant piece of research under the McCann Truth Central banner. The study, which quizzed 6,500 people in the US, UK, Hong Kong, Japan, India and Chile, shows that people are indeed concerned about attacks on their personal privacy. But targeted marketing is way down the list of threats, the two principal issues being the security of financial data and the security of personal reputation.

McCann WorldGroup global IQ director Laura Simpson notes that:

65% of people around the world are aware of Web tracking and 44% are aware that marketers use it to determine the interests of consumers. “Many welcome it,” she adds, because they believe there is a fair exchange, including access to promotions and discounts and ads directed at them that are more relevant to their needs.

Then again, as one industry commentator on the article points out, that enthusiasm may be conditioned by poor understanding of how sophisticated BT actually is.


“Bonking” Boris – the world’s worst brand ambassador for discreet nookie

October 10, 2011

You’ve got to admire the chutzpah – if nothing else – of those smart cookies at Ashley Madison. Using Bojo as a pirated pin-up boy for their national advertising campaign targeting the professionally promiscuous looks like a stroke of marcoms genius.

“Affairs Now Guaranteed! No Matter what you look like,” screams the copy. And there opposite it is the seemingly perfect complement, an image of the Tousled Philanderer, whose extramarital indiscretions are a matter of public record.

So, top marks for clear brand identification. Top marks also for effective use of media on a small budget. Like any successful political poster campaign, this one relies on stretching very little money a very long way through maximum media leverage. A so-far-single poster (erected in Camden, London) has neatly achieved national coverage in a matter of hours.

What’s more, Boris has managed to add reinforcing feedback, if entirely involuntarily. As can be readily appreciated, the affronted London Mayor regards this exploitation of his private life with all the relish attending a visit to the dentist for root-canal surgery. But threatening legal action is only going to make matters worse, by directing more attention to the campaign.

Ashley Madison is smugly aware of this; it has done its homework. No one is going to complain to the relevant regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority, for the good reason that AM has not, apparently, transgressed any of its rules. And, as for legal action, AM has an answer for that as well: “If the Mayor exerts the influence of his office to take it [the poster] down, we will proceed with our own legal action for tortuous interference of a business venture,” opines its managing director Noel Biderman on Campaign’s website.

I have just one quibble with this campaign, and it’s not what you might think. On its website the infidelity broker makes great play of one of its key brand attributes: it is, apparently, ‘The world’s leading married dating service for discreet encounters’.

Bojo discreet? Don’t make me laugh. Let’s just remind ourselves of that highly confidential record. Alexander “Bonking” Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was sacked from the shadow cabinet’s front bench in 2004 for lying to then leader Michael Howard about the four-year affair he had been conducting with champagne hack Petronella Wyatt. There is reasonable circumstantial evidence (according to the Daily Mail, at any rate) that he has recently fathered the son of wealthy socialite Helen Macintyre. More recently still, he has muddied already turbulent political waters by appointing his (now-ex) mistress as a fundraiser for the Olympic Park sculpture, shortly after her official partner had contributed £80,000 to the self-same project.

It may well be that the Mayor of London can walk on water. But I would advise clients of Ashley Madison not to think they can do the same.


Advertisers mull the hidden costs of child-proofing the web

September 1, 2010

The extension of the Advertising Standards Authority remit to corporate websites and social media content has not come a moment too soon.

The self-regulatory principle – and therein, the ability of advertisers to deflect calls for an unwieldy statutory alternative – is only as robust as its weakest link. And this was a very weak link – so flimsy that unscrupulous malefactors within the industry could, and did, drive a coach and horses through the CAP code. Since 2008, the ASA – which enforces CAP – has received more than 4,500 complaints about online content abuse. To which the lame – but unavoidable – rebuttal has been: that’s not our affair.

No doubt as billed, the new CAP code revisions comprises some of the most ambitiously scoped regulation in the world. The devil, of course, will be in policing the detail. There are at least two areas of concern here.

Punitive sanctions are notoriously more difficult to enforce online than they are with strictly regulated traditional media. The ASA has shrewdly enlisted Google’s help (Google is also supplying seed-corn capital to prime the pump of wider regulatory coverage). Among its options are to remove paid-for search ads linked to persistent offenders and, if necessary, to escalate the pressure by inserting the ASA’s own “name and shame” search ads opposite the offending site. This, of course, does not have the same force as an outright ban.

More subtle is the issue of scrutinising what constitutes code-breaking content and what does not. Nowhere, it seems, in the newly revised code is there a precise definition of “marketing communications”. Possibly for good legal reason. The boundary between self-promotion and “free editorial comment” is often a difficult one to draw. Nevertheless, the penalty in not defining it precisely will be a slow and – for the sometimes unwitting perpetrators – painful and expensive learning curve while case histories are built up. I doubt that the six-month induction period before the new restrictions are fully implemented will be long enough for the industry to get up to speed.

Let’s look at a rather alarming example of the depth of industry ignorance. ASA chairman Chris Smith, taking his cue from David Cameron’s warning about the sanctity of family values, portrays the revised code as having “the protection of children and consumers at its heart.” Coca-Cola recently, and notoriously, fired it digital agency, Lean Mean Fighting Machine, over a Facebook promotion for Dr Pepper that badly miscarried. No doubt the agency thought it was being smart and edgy when it inserted a cryptic reference to hardcore pornographic movie Two Girls One Cup into the copy. But the reference was wholly inappropriate for the 14-year old girl who ended up reading it – and whose mother subsequently blew the whistle on Coke’s irresponsible behaviour. Coke fired the agency and apologised fulsomely. But the chilling thing was Coke clearly had no idea what the reference meant, and no idea what its agency was up to. If an advertiser of this sophistication can make such an elementary blunder, what hope is there for everyone else?

The upshot of these revised regulations will be to promote a host of new hirings. At the ASA, to sift through the prodigious number of case studies generated; and at advertisers and their agencies, to monitor the new boundaries of acceptability.


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