On Riots, Advertising and Not Treating Consumers Like Idiots/by CEO of WPP, Martin Sorrell

Anyone who communicates for a living, from the lowliest marketing executive to the most seasoned front-bench politician, understands that before you deliver your message, you need to know your audience.

(People who don’t get paid to communicate, but simply like to do it well, appreciate this too.)

So we must assume that Helen Goodman, the UK’s Shadow Minister for Culture, was addressing her comments at the recent Advertising Association Summit in London not to those in the room, but to some other constituency.

Industry leaders were alarmed and bemused by her apparent hostility towards the advertising and marketing services business.

Rather than championing a sector that, according to Deloitte, underpins £100 billion of the UK’s GDP, the Shadow Minister began her remarks by associating the attitude of looters during the London riots of 2011 with the “curse” of branding and “excesses in marketing”. She then went on to threaten the industry with new legislation.

Denigrating advertising is, of course, nothing new, nor is it restricted to Opposition spokespeople. The Shadow Minister’s comments are just the latest addition to the canon of ad-bashing.

Advertising is blamed for a range of societal ills. It drives excessive consumption; it promotes poor health; it damages the environment; it makes us unhappy; it’s bad for us.

Like most sweeping generalisations, these claims fall apart when exposed to scrutiny.

Jeremy Bullmore, industry commentator, former chairman of JWT London and member of the WPP advisory board, wrote eloquently on this subject as long ago as 1983, in his introduction to the Advertising Association Handbook.

He pointed out that advertising is simply a channel of communication (one of many). It can be used to make people aware of the benefits of anything: a village fete or a national health initiative; a global brand or a second-hand car; a supermarket chain or a cancer charity.

In other words, there is a difference between advertising (medium) and advertisements (content), just as there is a difference between television and television programmes, the telephone and telephone calls, the internet and websites.

We can argue about whether certain adverts or campaigns have negative effects, but any statement like “advertising is bad for us” (or indeed “advertising is good for us”) is inherently absurd. Advertising is not a homogenous lump; as Jeremy put it, it has “an almost infinite number of different ends” – and manifestations.

This isn’t to abdicate responsibility. There are existing safety nets to deal with unacceptable advertising: a strong and effective self-regulatory system (which has always shown itself willing to work with policy-makers); the loud disapproval of an ever more vocal, informed and engaged public; simple failure for the brand, client and agency.

Probably the most famous put-down of advertising came from the pen of George Orwell, who described it as “the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket”. It’s a good line, but it also reveals a weakness at the heart of the prosecution’s case, namely a pretty dim view of humanity.

According to the anti-advertising lobby, those who consume marketing messages (the general public) have all the critical faculties of a farmyard animal. They are gullible, weak-willed, incapable of independent judgement – a bunch of dupes.

In 2011 the Public Interest Research Centre and WWF produced a report about the ethics of advertising. In its conclusion it called, apparently in all seriousness, for “the inclusion of a disclaimer on every billboard”, which would say:

“This advertisement may influence you in ways of which you are not consciously aware. Buying consumer goods is unlikely to improve your wellbeing and borrowing to buy consumer goods may be unwise; debt can enslave.”

If the authors’ view of the world is correct, we urgently need warnings on all forms of public communication.

On the masthead of every newspaper: “This publication might have its own political views and agenda, which could affect what you are about to read. Please be on your guard.”

At the beginning of every movie: “This film might cause you to experience strong emotions but be aware that they will have been generated through artifice.”

Beneath every painting: “This piece of art might be trying to tell you something.”

On balance, though, I prefer the assessment of the great David Ogilvy, who liked to remind his agency’s staff that “the consumer is not a moron.”

Putting to one side the fact that the PIRC/WWF proposal is breathtakingly patronising, contemptuous of ordinary people and (somewhat self-defeatingly) far too long to appear on any billboard, it is actually a very effective piece of communication; it tells you clearly that whoever came up with it doesn’t really understand people or how to reach them at all.

To be fair to the politicians, not even the most nannying of nanny states would adopt the PIRC/WWF approach.

But a business sector on which 550,000 UK jobs depend, that is admired and celebrated around the world, that plays a major role in funding the UK’s creative output across the arts, entertainment and media, deserves better than lazy punditry.

Advertising is an engine of economic growth, and a key component of our national prosperity. One sure-fire way to accelerate the UK’s recovery would be for still-cautious brands and businesses to invest more in marketing their products, so it is disappointing when the political instinct is to stifle rather than exploit this potential.

Our industry is rightly subject to scrutiny and criticism like any other, but every now and then our public figures might find time to talk up, not undermine, a genuine British success story.

A version of this article first appeared in the Sunday Telegraph


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