Advertising mustn't be the scapegoat for society's ills

Advertising mustn't be the  scapegoat for society's ills

"I know, let's ban the advertising." It's an increasingly common edict from government when tackling any sort of societal-behavioural problem.

In recent weeks, we’ve had proposals on restricting ads for "junk" food after the 9pm watershed. Health groups are lobbying government to eventually ban all alcohol advertising. And, this week, the Office of Fair Trading proposes restricting ads for payday loan services.

Underlying all this is a burgeoning moral crisis about the way we Brits run our lives. This week, a report by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle revealed that UK healthy life expectancy was lower than in other developed nations.

Govt ads have proven an effective way to change behaviours for the better. Yet spend on such work has been slashed

This government’s reaction is too often to tackle the damaging consumer behaviours that underlie these problems by attacking the advertisers. The reason we are drinking so much, apparently, is because beer ads are too sexy. The reason we stuff our faces with burgers is because the McDonald’s brand is just too alluring.

There is a grain of truth in this. Certainly, restrictions on tobacco advertising have been one strand in reducing smoking. But it is a blunt and often paradoxical approach. The great irony is that inspired government advertising has proven an effective way to change behaviours for the better. And yet this administration has slashed spend on such work, often ignoring, as Jeremy Lee writes, some of the superb thinking of past campaigns.

The latest example, payday loans, is a difficult one for the ad industry. Unlike tobacco, the Government is not committed to phasing out the practice altogether. Restricting ads by successful companies such a looks therefore like a sticking-plaster approach, buying time while politicians deal with a wider distaste for a business that exploits the vulnerable.

Many ad execs would privately prefer not to work for payday lenders yet often still accept the filthy lucre in a tough market. The response to my question to this end on Twitter ranged from "no, we don’t touch this stuff" to "our job is to portray legal businesses in the best light".

But agency ethics notwithstanding, the Government would be better promoting such interesting ethical debates – via its own ad campaigns – than instigating knee-jerk bans that skirt the difficult questions.      @dannyrogers2001

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