Admen take arms against a sea of troubles

December 16, 2009

This week the ever-vigilant defenders of Citadel Adland were called upon to repel a brace of assaults on its freedom – though one, it has to be said, issued from the barrel of a pop-gun rather than a howitzer.

First the pop-gun. This was a study published by the New Economics Foundation, a right-on but left-leaning institute founded about 25 years ago. Its beef is with the parasitical rich generally rather than the advertising industry in particular. Admen, however, are cited as destroyers of value because they fuel feelings of dissatisfaction, inadequacy and stress. NEF has even managed to put a value on that destruction. It is £11.50 for every £1 of value created. How did they arrive at this astronomical negative calculus? I do not know. But my suspicion of politically-motivated pseudo-scientific deduction was aroused when I discovered that, using the same methodology, every £1 spent on a hospital cleaner results in £10 of value to society. Why? I can only conjecture that NEF’s eager young researchers have been spending too much time poring over Karl Marx’s labour theory of value (fatally flawed in having no insight into the effects of automation or, indeed, the appreciation of antiques).

Whatever; I will let Hamish Pringle, director-general of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, have the last word on the matter. “The NEF methodology is obviously very clever and we’ve used it to calculate that for every £1 of value created by a think-tank executive, £12.50 is destroyed. This is almost the exact reverse of a real economy employee.”

So much for the pop-gun, now for the howitzer. This was the much more measured Buckingham Inquiry into the commercialisation of childhood – named after Professor David Buckingham, an avowed international expert on children’s consumption of ads, TV and the web.

Buckingham concluded that there is indeed a rising tide of commercialisation in the playground, contributing to increased pester power. But he was careful to temper this conclusion with an acknowledgement that increasing commercial immersion was a fact of life in our society. Rather than embrace Draconian regulation, legislators should strive to educate our children in avoiding the more obvious snares of commercial enticement. Buckingham also pointed out that advertisers “have made available a range of new products and services that might not otherwise have been provided.” Though how much these actually contribute to learning is more controversial.

What mattered here, however, was less the studied impartiality of Professor Buckingham’s tone than the emotionally-charged nature of his chosen subject matter: vulnerable young minds. It was cannon from the left and cannon from the right, as far as our nationals were concerned. “Teach five-year olds to beware of advertising, says government inquiry” trumpeted The Guardian; “Should advertising aimed at kids be banned?” blared The Telegraph. Well, No, in a word. It’s an impossible task to define, still more to implement.

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