Is advertising under special threat as May 2015 approaches? You may think that it is not the lead issue on the doorstep or in the manifesto committees. Indeed, when it comes to the doorstep, I can confirm that in all my years talking to voters and seeking their support, I have rarely been asked about my policy on advertising regulation.
Of course it is an issue for some people related to specific areas of concern, namely built along the fault lines of consumer protection versus business competition and the boundaries of freedom of speech. But this is rare.
Interestingly advertising is not really part of the political consciousness in the UK. Compare us to the States, where TV campaign advertising is a key part of the party strategies. Posters here have been influential… Labour Isn’t Working in ’79 is a classic; but more recently non-broadcast political ads have more notably come in the form of PR shoots or tweets within the new digital battle ground. Beyond these methods, here in the UK we ban TV ads in exchange for free air time in PPBs.
It’s tempting to think we would do better by abandoning PPBs and allow party ads, especially as screen time is increasingly when we choose to watch rather than when the legacy broadcasters allocate time. But the cost would be high and would need new funding, raising a string of new concerns. It’s also worth noting that the ad regulation system politely refuses to regulate party political campaign ads; after all our watch words are substantiation overlaid with ‘decent, legal and truthful’.
At ISBA, we are the representative body for advertisers and include brands, the public sector as well as charities. We know that responsible advertising needs rules and regulation; indeed we support it and pay for it. But we are also distinctly aware that some policy makers, politicians and NGOs can see ad restrictions as a way to cure society’s ills.
We have strict advertising rules in the UK. The CAP and BCAP rule books are effectively used by our Independent regulator, the ASA. When Westminster or Brusells pass new laws, we translate them swiftly to UK law. As an ex-MEP, I know all too well that laws I spoke out on – and lost amendments on – are now laws that I have to play by. I wish it were so in more Europhile Member States!
So closer to home and in the context of the 2015 General Election, is Labour a threat to advertisers? Is Cameron’s new team plotting to restrict ads of food and drink to children? Are the Lib Dems swinging towards or away from a crackdown on consumer information? And of more immediate interest, would a newly Independent Scotland want restrictive ad rules?
On the last point, whilst I personally really want Scots to stay in the UK, I can see that rules reflecting more closely the needs in Scotland, or indeed the English regions, could be justified. Of course, this ideal would be very difficult to make work in the modern digital and global media environment in which we live. The result would potentially create less consumer choice and create higher shop prices for placing ads.
Looking ahead to May 2015, I don’t think that any of the UK parties are a particular threat to the advertising business, but that’s not to say we will not hear anti-ad rhetoric in the coming months. When faced with the realities of implementing ad restriction policies, which destroys jobs in brewing and in food distribution, closes supermarkets and carries on the absolute disaster of the loss of children’s TV programming, my bet is on a more considered set of policies in government. The evidence is that markets work.
Broadly speaking, when regulations change, so does our collective behaviour; business will adapt, charities will find new ways of delivering messages, governments may even claim exemption from their own laws. As such, our industry needs to ensure that parties and lobbyists know what they are asking for and what the likely consequences will be of those policy asks.