Please let 2019 not be the year when we reach peak banning. London mayor Sadiq Khan has fired the pistol with his announcement that from February all HFSS food and drinks, plus those considered "less healthy" by Public Health England, will be banned across Transport for London’s out-of-home estate as part of a headline-grabbing attempt to tackle childhood obesity (or be seen to do so).
Khan, mayor of a city troubled by more immediately life-threatening issues than McDonald’s posters, has form when it comes to censoring ads. In 2016, he banned advertising that he thought promoted "unhealthy or unrealistic" body images. This followed complaints and, of course, an online petition about a 2015 poster on the London Underground for dietary product Protein World, which he decided promoted a "negative body image". Yet the Advertising Standards Authority banned "Are you beach body ready?" on health rather than offence grounds – although the fuss prompted a review of gender stereotyping in ads and new rules are expected by the end of the year.
Not surprisingly, the IPA has come out against the latest ban, pointing out the bleeding obvious to Khan that there are many other wider socio-economic factors at play when it comes to dietary choices. Nonetheless, facts like these don’t play well to the gallery and are against a depressingly populist prevailing narrative that advertising is generally bad.
Elsewhere, the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising, which has members including adman Benedict Pringle and former Unilever marketer Alex Tait and is supported by ISBA, wants to give the politicians a taste of their own medicine with a ban on "lies" in political advertising and has launched an online petition. It’s no secret that due to a long-running failure among political parties to agree a consensus (fancy that), political ads remain unregulated. The public has long been exposed to half-truths and lies in political campaigns, most famously in the Brexit debate (and, in fairness, from both sides of the argument).
The way in which this well-meaning coalition thinks the clearance, monitoring and subsequent censure of the often vapid and deliberately opaque and untrackable political claims will work is perhaps a little fanciful. They state that they want all factual claims to be pre-cleared without saying by whom; to "give an existing body the power to regulate political advertising content or create a new one to do so" and require political ads to disclose their sponsor.
It’s unlikely to achieve cross-party support either so political advertising will remain a Wild West, where unsubstantiated and unverifiable claims trip off the page as easily as they slip from politicians’ tongues.
No-one doubts that childhood obesity is a problem but surely it’s a case of muddled virtue-signal thinking when a dietary supplement that harbours an "unrealistic body image" is considered as abhorrent and offensive to the public eye as those ads for food and drinks that are accused of making children fat? Greater clarity of thought and policy – at all levels of government – is required rather than knee-jerk reactions but, in truth, it was always thus. Moreover, why would politicians want to put their own house in order when they’re too busy meddling in the houses of others?
In the spirit of the age, here’s a list of things Campaign would like to ban in 2019 (aside from ban-happy politicians who are often lacking in action on the more important issues of the day).
First, let’s stop talking the industry down. Yes, it’s tough and, yes, it’s going through structural change that hurts at the time, but it needs to. And, to paraphrase another politician, while we might not be at the end of the change necessary – or even at the beginning of the end – we are surely at the end of the beginning. Creativity and eff ectiveness powers business and business provides us with jobs and wealth – and let’s face it, it’s still a brilliant industry to work in, full of funny, imaginative, clever and creative people.
Second, let’s fight against the narrative that creative agencies are endangered as a species. The trials at J Walter Thompson and Y&R are symptomatic of the levels of investment in the right talent and resource at these networks – they are not reflective of all creative businessss. Yes, ad agencies need to change but it was ever thus.
Third, let’s stop whingeing that Brexit will most definitely damage the industry – British creativity is admired the world over and the ad industry remains a global business, with the UK’s agencies at the heart of it. Let’s do our very best to navigate the challenges that lie ahead.
Lastly, in 2019 can we implore holding companies to stop scything away at agency structures, without focusing on the individual talent within – they are this industry’s greatest resource and hope.