Opinions - Court out. Would advertising survive the scrutiny of Leveson?


by Magnus Shaw


*As I write this Andy Coulson, Neville Thurlbeck, Stuart Kuttner and Glenn Mulcaire are appearing in court facing charges relating to the phone hacking scandal. And quite right too.

There is little doubt the interception of voice mails was being conducted by newspapers on an industrial scale and included an intrusion into the grief and anxiety of the parents of Millie Dowler. Clearly somebody must answer for this.


Beyond the phone tampering a viper's nest has been revealed in many newsrooms. Journalists and executives had established unhealthy relationships with the police and money and favours were changing hands. But, while our moral indignation and desire for justice is valid, I wonder how the advertising and creative industry would get on if a similar spotlight was turned on our affairs.

Corporate corruption and malpractice are insidious. What begins as underhand and secretive soon becomes standard operating procedure - particularly if certain activities are seen to be very effective. Condoned by senior management and shared amongst colleagues, the illegal, the unfair and the nefarious establish themselves as the norm. This is not exclusive to newspapers. Indeed, every private and public body can fall into the trap - and advertising is no exception.

The advertising industry has never enjoyed a glittering reputation. The very nature of the work it undertakes - essentially persuading people to act in a way that favours a client - is sufficient to throw up scepticism, cynicism and outright hostility in hefty doses. The question is, if our business were to be scrutinised, would those misgivings stand or fall?

To answer that, we need to establish the "crimes" of which advertising is accused. Talking to folk outside the industry, it's frequently obvious they suspect we are in possession of many sinister tools that allow us to "brainwash" the public into buying useless tat. I'm amazed how often people tell me they know we use subliminal messaging in TV and cinema ads, flashing up words or images for a fraction of a second to implant marketing messages in their minds. Of course, this is untrue (it's unlawful and research suggests it wouldn't work even it wasn't). Others imagine advertisers pump smells or noises into shops to prompt unwanted buying or deploy specific colours or patterns to "hypnotise" consumers. If anything, they are crediting us with too much power. In truth, advertising is a constant battle against apathy and preconceptions. No agency has access to an arsenal of dark arts, guaranteed to force the audience into action. If they did, no brand or product would ever fail - and they do, all the time.

But "adverts tell lies," say the critics. Well, yes - sometimes they do. And when customers discover an advertiser misled them, they desert the company or service with all due haste. Ads that lie are just bad ads. Lying is not our business.

It is also said advertising isn't "proper" work. The offices of ad agencies are like opium dens, the lavatories packed with suits inhaling exotic powders, the studios a carpet of hip creatives, swigging bottled beer and playing crazy music on their Macs. That's the claim. It's a bit disappointing that it's a falsehood.

I would be foolish to state that nobody in advertising ever took drugs or no copywriter ever listened to iTunes at work. But I can re-assure the disgruntled critics that the modern creative industry is frighteningly competitive and therefore busy and lean. The hedonistic shops of the eighties, their fridges stacked with Kristal and their staff guests at an endless party, are an anachronism. It is far more likely to find the contemporary account director swilling very strong coffee in order to work till midnight, than to spot them in a Soho cocktail bar throwing the corporate credit card around. We may not be digging ditches or building roads, but we are most definitely working hard.

So, if advertising is so competitive, surely the business is awash with sharp practices designed to ensure the prime clients walk blindly through the door. Why wouldn't we sweep the decision-makers, with the big accounts, off to sunny climes, lavish them with expensive gifts or even slip them a backhander for favourable treatment? Put simply, we don't do it because it wouldn't wash. Again, I am in no position to insist the greasing of a client's palms has never taken place, but I can assert that, in 20 years, I have never known it to be standard behaviour. Quite the opposite. When an invitation to pitch arrives, it is usually loaded with clauses which ensure a level playing field for all concerned. Number of site visits, level of client contact, questions to be asked and answered - all laid out in the document. Suggest to the potential client you'd like to fly them out for a weekend in Milan and you'd be more likely to be axed from the pitch than to win the business.

As part of a creative tender, I once arranged for three mobile phones to be delivered to a client, to which we then sent a series of text messages. Before the day was out, a courier had returned the (very cheap and cheerful) phones with a polite note saying they could not be accepted as they might be seen as unfair gratuities.

Once an account has been won, the odd dinner, Christmas gift or trip to the races isn't unknown. But far from being corrupt, these treats are always transparent and nothing more than a modest attempt to give a loyal client a token of appreciation. That's a long way from bribing public officials and quite definitely not illegal.

This isn't a plea for the advertising industry to be regarded as whiter than whiter, purer than pure. We've had our fair share of scandals, bad behaviour and risky ideas. What I am saying is that the level of shame is no higher (and may well be much lower) than that of many other sectors. One only has to consider politics, property, oil and - of course - newspapers.

If Lord Leveson or one of his colleagues was ever tasked with peering at the advertising game, he'd probably find some rotten bits, but nothing too extreme. And he certainly wouldn't find us abusing the privacy of the parents of a lost child.


Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant.

Visit Magnus Shaw's website 
"ADVICE" a collection of Magnus Shaw's columns is now available as a Kindle book.


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