August 27, 2008

From Light Touch to Iron Fist

By Simms, Jane

In the wake of heightened media interest in the dangers of binge drinking and obesity, and with lobby groups seeking tighter regulation of advertising, Jane Simms assesses the impact on marketers The UK advertising industry is already one of the most tightly restricted in the world, yet many believe further regulation is inevitable thanks to the work of lobby groups and NGOs. From smoking, obesity and binge drinking to global warming, blaming marketers for society's ills is fast becoming the norm. Ian Twinn, director of public affairs at ISBA, recently warned that if the government continues to capitulate to the demands of lobbyists and pressure groups, then more advertising and product bans will be inevitable.

Twinn believes that, in many cases, advertisers are being made scapegoats for wider societal and environmental problems that have complex and deep-rooted cultural origins. 'There are around 400 acts of parliament and pieces of statutory legislation mentioning broadcast advertising alone, and 131 of them have "food and drink" in the title,' he says. 'Then, on top of that, we have the self- regulatory system of the Committee of Advertising Practice, the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), and so on. Despite this, obesity and alcohol abuse are rising, and the evidence from other countries is that advertising bans have no effect whatsoever.'

Industry groups and advertisers claim there is a hypocrisy within government in relation to such problems. For instance, it can be argued that lack of exercise is as big a cause of obesity as overeating, yet successive governments have sold off school playing fields. Likewise, some claim that the relaxation of licensing laws to allow 24-hour drinking is unlikely to have helped those tackling alcohol abuse; and it is said that the money spent on campaigns highlighting the dangers of excessive drinking could be better used elsewhere.

Nevertheless, advertisers are, by and large, taking a pragmatic approach to legislation and the need to act - and to be seen to be acting - responsibly. Some argue that when legislation has been passed it has simply mirrored what they were doing already in response to consumer demand; others say it has proved a catalyst for a better product, service and communications, and, as a result, greater commercial success.

But advertisers will have to remain alert to the threat of more regulation, not least in the notoriously difficult-to-regulate online space. Hamish Pringle, director-general of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, advises brand owners to stay one step ahead and deal with threats as they emerge, rather than being forced to react defensively.

'There has been a certain arrogance and sense of invincibility among the food and car manufacturers, for example, which seemed taken aback by some of the legislation, when the writing had been on the wall for years,' he says.

With researchers currently compiling a report on the impact of the commercial world on children, advertisers perhaps need to improve the way they stand up to government and lobbyists. 'The marketing industry has far more data on consumers' behaviour than the government, and should use that insight and research to inform conversations with them,' says Pringle.

Baroness Peta Buscombe, chief executive of the Advertising Association and former shadow minister in the Lords for education and skills, agrees.'Business is a great force for good and it has to do more to demonstrate that it can be part of the solution to societal ills rather than part of the problem,' she says. 'Most parliamentarians have no commercial experience, and are often under- resourced, so when they get bombarded by NGOs, which are slick marketers themselves, about the evils of marketing, they start to believe it.'

Marketers, then, must harness their skills and play the lobbyists at their own game. Over the next few pages, we ask leading marketers and lobbyists to decipher the regulation.

'MPs are often under-resourced, so when they get bombarded by NGOs about the evils of marketing they start to believe it'

Peta Buscombe

Advertising Association

Cars, transport and travel

'The car industry attracts a disproportionate amount of attention from the government in its efforts to address - and be seen to be addressing - the problem of climate change because cars are a visible and often emotive source of CO2 emissions,' says Richard Hudson, marketing director at BMW UK. 'But in reality, cars account for only 12% of all CO2 emissions in the UK, despite accounting for 88% of passenger miles.'

Regulations such as the Department for Transport's recent ruling that print and poster ads for cars will have to carry information on CO2 emissions and fuel economy are ill-conceived, argues Hudson. 'They are put together by people in government who appear to have no idea how communications work or how people buy cars,' he says. 'We would have a great life if consumers saw a pretty ad for a nice car and went straight out to buy it without doing their research.'

The DfT edict is 'pointless', according to Hudson. 'You could run a car ad that ticks the government's boxes, but still makes unjustifiable green claims,' he says. 'Fortunately, the self- regulatory system works well. If an ad falls through the net of Ofcom and so on, it will be pulled up by the ASA.'

Indeed, over the past six months alone the ASA has upheld complaints against fiat, Saab and Renault about the green claims made in their ads. What's more, adds Hudson, the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre is scrutinising claims more closely than ever. 'BMW had to submit a 60-page document providing a detailed justification of the green claims we made in our recent "Thank you" ad,' he says.

Mark Ovenden, marketing director at Ford of Britain, says car makers are driven largely by consumer demand. 'Just as the level of safety equipment on cars goes beyond what the law stipulates, oil prices, rather than legislation, will drive the development of fuel- efficient cars,' he adds.

A spokesman for the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders points out that a cigarette-packet-style 'health warning" on car ads could, like the small-print disclaimers on financial services advertisements, serve to confuse rather than clarify. 'The government needs to work with fuel companies to help develop alternative sources of fuel, take measures to help reduce congestion, make alternative transport more attractive, and so on,' he says.

Cars: a scapegoat for the environmental lobby?

'Just as safety goes beyond what the law stipulates, oil prices, rather than legislation, will drive the development of fuel- efficient cars'

Mark Ovenden

Ford of Britain

Food and drink

Figures from Nielsen Media Research suggest that many firms may have reacted to last year's restrictions on the advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar by shifting marketing spend to the less tightly regulated online space. While year-on-year spend on TV, radio, press and outdoor advertising fell between January and May, internet advertising rose by nearly 30%.

However, enlightened advertisers are complying with the spirit as well as the letter of the law in terms of what, and how, they advertise - and are reaping commercial returns as a result. 'For the past seven years, we have been taking small, realistic steps in the areas of innovation, reformulation and marketing to help people make the right dietary choices,' says Jill McDonald, chief marketing officer at McDonald's UK and Northern Europe division. As well as making healthier options available in its fast-food outlets and reducing the fat, salt and sugar content in its meals, the company says it no longer advertises to children, despite the fact that doing so online remains legal.

Much of the fast-food chain's action has been in response to customer demand and has pre-empted legislation. The company is also working with the government to ensure that any future legislation is 'good in the sense of being targeted, measurable, effective and proportional', says McDonald.

David Kisilevsky, EMEA vice-president of marketing at Burger King, says greater legislation has forced the chain to be more creative in the way it develops and promotes healthier options. The recent launch of its Angus miniburgers and chicken strips with reduced salt are 'the first green shoots' of this fresh focus. The company has also shifted the emphasis of advertising from children to parents, and a print campaign in women's magazines over the coming weeks will concentrate on promoting 'fun food for kids that parents can trust', says Kisilevsky. The strategy is paying off. Burger King's sales are at their highest for four years, with growth in children's meals over the past year being 'particularly significant'. Kisilevsky also believes that offering toys with meals is old hat. 'We want to concentrate more on our menu, rather than outbidding competitors for the hottest toy of the moment,' he adds.

Kevin Brennan, marketing director at Kellogg UK, which runs health initiatives such as free swimming programmes, hopes the government will realise that advertising is only one way to tackle consumer behaviour. 'It would be ludicrous to ban all advertising to children,' he says. 'After all, isn't learning that you can't have it all an important life skill? And teaching that is part of good parenting.' 'We have been taking small, realistic steps in the areas of innovation, reformulation and marketing to help people make the right choices'

Jill McDonald


McDonald's: no longer advertises to children

Burger King: also switched advertising focus to parents


Frank Sodeen, head of public affairs at Alcohol Concern, believes that alcohol advertising, with no diminution in quality or creativity, has become far more responsible since the late-80s and early-90s when, as he says, 'alcopop advertisements seemed to be deliberately aimed at under-age drinkers'.

He adds that if advertisers continue to act responsibly, and regulator the Portman Group is able to crack down effectively on the small number of transgressors, 'the current system of self- regulation could be here to stay'. Sodeen argues that if more advertisers follow Diageo's lead and divert part of their marketing budget into campaigns that highlight a responsible-drinking message, support for self-regulation will increase accordingly.

Diageo's marketing complies with external codes and its self- enforced guidelines, which, in essence, stipulate that ads should neither encourage excessive consumption nor suggest that alcohol improves mental or physical performance or social or sexual appeal. A few years ago, the company took this responsible approach further by channelling its creative talent into branded campaigns encouraging responsible drinking. 'Attitudes to alcohol' is now the company's fourth-biggest campaign, with a marketing budget greater than that of gin brand Gordon's and with a dedicated global marketing director, Pamela Bower-Nye, who formerly oversaw activity for Smirnoff in North America.

'We normally do three bursts of advertising a year, around the big drinking times,' says head of social responsibility Kate Blakeley. She claims that 'Choices', the current TV ad in the campaign created by Abbot Mead Vickers BBDO, has made a positive impact on its 18- to 24-year-old target audience, according to research by Millward Brown.

Blakeley argues that advertising bans benefit no one, so it is up to the drinks industry to market itself responsibly and work with partners, including retailers and the government, to spread the responsible-drinking message. 'Problems such as under-age and binge drinking, which the government is tackling through its own campaigns, need [to be challenged with] the right enforcement, good awareness and education, and good practice by the industry,' she says.

However, some brands will always try to push the boundaries in a bid to appeal to their target market. Beverage Brands, which owns vodka-based drink WKD, recently withdrew some pictures from its website after the Portman Group upheld a complaint by Alcohol Concern that they could be deemed to represent drunkenness. Karen Sailers, Beverage Brands' marketing director, insists that WKD's growing use of digital media is not an attempt to side-step regulation, but instead reflects 'an increase in consumer interest and activity in this area'.

It should be noted that Beverage Brands is one of nine members of the Portman Group, which accounts for only 60% of the UK alcohol industry. This, says Sodeen, casts doubt on the group's ability to effectively monitor the practice of alcohol brands across the board.

Diageo: ads for its brands, such as Smlrnoff, feature responsible- drinking message

Binge drinking: government is also warning the public

'Problems such as under-age and binge drinking need [to be challenged with] the right enforcement and good practice'

Kate Blakeley


Copyright Haymarket Business Publications Ltd. Jul 30, 2008

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