Advertising: all-powerful or over-rated?

Sunday 14 October, 14:0015:30, Garden RoomWhose business is it anyway?

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There are frequent calls for restrictions on advertising a variety of products – many of which have become enacted as laws or regulations. For example, since 2007, Ofcom has applied a ban on ads for foods high in fat, salt or sugar during all children’s programming, on all children’s channels and during any other programmes that have a ‘particular appeal’ to 16-year-olds and under. But campaigners want to go further, extending the ban to the 9pm ‘watershed’. In 2017, a ban on the use of cartoon characters was extended from TV advertising to online, print and cinemas – but campaigners want the ban extended to packaging, too.

It’s not just junk food that has been targeted. In 2017, the Alcohol Health Alliance called for a ban on advertising alcohol. Numerous commentators noted the preponderance of gambling advertising during World Cup matches this year, with calls for bans during matches or even a complete ban. Sponsorship of sports events by alcohol and gambling companies is another frequent object of criticism. And, of course, all forms of advertising of tobacco have long since been banned. Elsewhere, there is a longstanding debate about sexualised advertising, like Poundland’s ‘Elf behaving badly’ Twitter campaign for Christmas 2017.

Campaigners against adverts cite a number of reasons for bans. A common criticism is that adverts are seen by, and often targeted towards, children, who do not have the same maturity as adults to judge them. More commonly, critics of adverts argue that if advertising didn’t work, companies would simply not spend so much money on it. Moreover, advertisers are often caught in a bind when it comes to diversity. On the one hand, advertisers win awards for reflecting diversity – like Lloyds Bank for its ‘Get the inside out’ adverts airing issues around mental health or Diageo’s ‘Made of more’ advert for Guinness featuring gay rugby player Gareth Thomas.

But advertisers are also accused of co-opting social movements, turning serious attempts at social change on issues from feminism to LGBT rights and racial diversity into a mere gloss to sell their products. For example, coffee chain Costa produced limited-edition cups to mark Pride, but made no donation to LGBT campaigns or other supportive messages, leading one critic to say: ‘This isn’t celebrating Pride, its profiting from it.’ Nor is it just profit-making companies that face criticism. For example, adverts for charities – both domestic and international – have been accused of exaggerating problems or painting a one-sided image of poorer countries in order to drum up support.

Defenders of advertising argue that it rarely results in consumers buying more of a type of product; rather, advertising is usually an attempt by companies to win a bigger share of a relatively static market. Adverts are not coercive, say supporters, and a poor product will quickly be found out, no matter how much is spent on promotion. Moreover, allowing advertising has real benefits, making consumers aware of new and different products, enabling innovations and better alternatives to succeed. A more fundamental view is that bans on advertising are a form of censorship. If we believe in free expression, we should allow advertising.

Why has advertising become such a focus for criticism? Do bans on adverts succeed in their intended aims? Indeed, does adverts really make much difference to sales? How should we view companies’ attempts to align themselves to fashionable causes? Regardless of its impacts, good or bad, is advertising a free-speech issue?