Magazine article Marketing

Regulation: From Light Touch to Iron Fist

Magazine article Marketing

Regulation: From Light Touch to Iron Fist

Article excerpt

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. …

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