How to get Britain lovin' advertising once again

When the ad agency CEOs and TV sales directors assembled at King’s Place last week, the Advertising Association was hoping for a bit of a debate. Specifically, the AA wanted those gathered to examine the rights and responsibilities of advertising. A grand aim. Happily, it succeeded.

Second on the bill was Richard Eyre. The wonderfully erudite Internet Advertising Bureau chairman was commissioned to ask whether there was more to the ad industry’s responsibilities than we acknowledge openly. Can agencies really stop at legal, decent, honest and truthful any more?

The world has changed, Eyre said. The fact that products are legal is no longer justification enough to advertise them. The public expects more and businesses should give it to them. Last week, I wrote that MPs, lobby groups and charities should start backing up their claims for ad bans with proper  independent research. Eyre called on adland to hold itself to higher standards.

He said the belief that ads for food with high sugar, salt or fat content do not affect children’s food choices is "obviously bollocks". The audience laughed. After all, McDonald’s won a gold IPA Effectiveness Award in 2012 for its paper Getting Britain Lovin’ It Once Again. Eyre likened the defence of food advertising to the tobacco marketers who said fag ads didn’t encourage people to start smoking, just switch brand.

The industry defending itself would be a hell of a lot more effective if it has substance behind its arguments

In his closing speech, Andy Duncan, the AA president, expressed a desire to take all these thoughts forward. Cilla Snowball, its chair, says that the body is well-positioned to do so as it reflects all the different stakeholders in the business. But we need to recognise that the wellbeing of the ad world depends on it making its case "socially and culturally, as well as economically".

The issue of advertising’s role in unhealthy behaviour is not going to go away. The industry could/should be bolder in defending itself against bad ideas. But that will be a hell of a lot more effective if it has substance behind its arguments. If we combine telling people about the changes that have been put in place to protect them with taking a good hard look at ourselves, the public is more likely to be convinced.

Another of the speakers demonstrated the effectiveness of honesty. Andrew Higginson, the new Morrisons chairman, kicked off with a joke about being intimidated (his presentation only had one slide). Higginson immediately won the audience over. He kept it with tales of false price reductions, stale doughnuts and making decisions in the real world. Bottles of wine that are supposedly half price don’t fool anyone. Neither do ads.

As a Bradfordian, I have always had a soft spot for Morrisons. But I’ll be watching out for its direction with added interest now.           

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