News Analysis: Politics of the COI

Article excerpt

The Tories' pledge to cut the COI's spend raises questions about the value of its work.

Complaints about the COI's funding levels make for easy headlines, but the fuss usually dies down as the political agenda moves on to something more substantial. However, at last week's Conservative Party conference the future funding and role of the organisation was in question as shadow chancellor George Osborne vowed to cut government adspend to offset a freeze on council tax.

Osborne used Nielsen data to point out that only Procter & Gamble spends more on all forms of advertising than the COI, and proposed to reduce spend to levels similar to those of 1997 by capping government ad budgets that do not apply to the NHS, schools and the police, if the Conservatives should come to power.

Such proclamations are key to Conservative leader David Cameron's grand goal - also announced at last week's conference - to impose 'discipline on government spending'. These types of promises are often quickly forgotten, but given the unpopularity of the current administration and the strong likelihood that the Tories would win an overwhelming majority in a snap general election, they should be considered with some seriousness.

Mark Wallace, campaigns director at the Taxpayers' Alliance, believes Osborne's proposals do not go far enough. 'Do we really want Whitehall spending tens of millions on planning and running ad campaigns, rather than on schools, hospitals and the criminal justice system?' he asks. 'We have a health service turning people away, while the government is spending money on making moral judgments about how people should live their lives.'

Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of Ogilvy group, disagrees. 'Reducing spend on government advertising may be the right thing to do where it isn't working, or serves an agenda that the new government does not wish to pursue, but to make a blanket pronouncement against the use of advertising is silly,' he says. 'Which is better? Hiring more doctors and firemen, or encouraging people not to get ill or start fires? A lot of evidence suggests the latter can be a better use of money.'

However, it is not only fringe political pressure groups that are prepared to add their weight to the argument that government spending needs reining in - the Liberal Democrats also offer some cross-party support. …