Sir Martin Sorrell's defence of advertising
Martin Sorrell

Earlier this year, at an Advertising Association conference based in the UK, Helen Goodman, the UK’s shadow minister for culture blamed “excessive marketing” as a factor in the 2011 London riots, when looters went in search of expensive trainer footwear.

She added that the Labour government had made mistakes in removing restrictions on gambling promotion as well.

WPP’s Chief Executive Sir Martin Sorrell has since written a blistering response, defending the advertising industry. Describing industry leaders as “alarmed” and “bemused” by Goodman’s comments, Sorrell said:

“Advertising is blamed for a range of societal ills. It drives excessive consumption; it promotes poor health; it damages the environment; it makes us unhappy; it’s bad for us.

Like most sweeping generalisations, these claims fall apart when exposed to scrutiny.

….In other words, there is a difference between advertising (medium) and advertisements (content), just as there is a difference between television and television programmes, the telephone and telephone calls, the internet and websites.

We can argue about whether certain adverts or campaigns have negative effects, but any statement like “advertising is bad for us” (or indeed “advertising is good for us”) is inherently absurd. Advertising is not a homogenous lump; as Jeremy Bullmore put it, it has “an almost infinite number of different ends” – and manifestations.

This isn’t to abdicate responsibility. There are existing safety nets to deal with unacceptable advertising: a strong and effective self-regulatory system (which has always shown itself willing to work with policy-makers); the loud disapproval of an ever more vocal, informed and engaged public; simple failure for the brand, client and agency.

Probably the most famous put-down of advertising came from the pen of George Orwell, who described it as “the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket”. It’s a good line, but it also reveals a weakness at the heart of the prosecution’s case, namely a pretty dim view of humanity.

According to the anti-advertising lobby, those who consume marketing messages (the general public) have all the critical faculties of a farmyard animal. They are gullible, weak-willed, incapable of independent judgement – a bunch of dupes.

In 2011 the Public Interest Research Centre and WWF produced a report about the ethics of advertising. In its conclusion it called, apparently in all seriousness, for “the inclusion of a disclaimer on every billboard”, which would say:

“This advertisement may influence you in ways of which you are not consciously aware. Buying consumer goods is unlikely to improve your wellbeing and borrowing to buy consumer goods may be unwise; debt can enslave.”

If the authors’ view of the world is correct, we urgently need warnings on all forms of public communication.

On the masthead of every newspaper: “This publication might have its own political views and agenda, which could affect what you are about to read. Please be on your guard.”

At the beginning of every movie: “This film might cause you to experience strong emotions but be aware that they will have been generated through artifice.”

Beneath every painting: “This piece of art might be trying to tell you something.”

On balance, though, I prefer the assessment of the great David Ogilvy, who liked to remind his agency’s staff that “the consumer is not a moron.”

Read the whole post on Sorrell’s LinkedIn feed.

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