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Was adland even partly to blame for Brexit?

The consequences of Brexit are becoming more clear with Bank of England governor Paul Carney trying to steady the economic ship by relaxing banks’ capital requirements in the hope, possibly forlorn, that this will encourage them to keep lending.

Commercial property prices in London are taking a powder – not before time as they’re completely ridiculous – and the good old GBP is plumbing the depths against the dollar. Again, some might say this is actually a more realistic level. As such it will help exporters who still have the Single Market to aim at as well as the rest of the world.

Adland, meanwhile, has been fretting (or so we keep reading) at the failure of its best brains to swing the referendum. M&C Saatchi and adam&eveDDB were among the agencies batting for Remain.

A criticism is that the tenor of the Remain campaign was too negative – chancellor George Osborne’s disastrous ‘Project Fear’ strategy. But those ads that didn’t run, but which subsequently emerged, were pretty negative too as far as I can see. Most political advertising is.

Here’s a truly dire one from Saatchi & Saatchi.
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And M&C Saatchi.

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Neither even try to provide a good reason to remain in the EU, apart from the fear of something worse. And that surely is why the whole Remain campaign failed. Nobody could think of a “buy this it’s good” reason for staying in the EU.

There are no doubt other reasons too. Agencies have complained of committee-dominated clients but you’re bound to get that. It’s their job to persuade all these panjandrums, however many there are. Choosing Sir Stuart Rose of Marks & Spencer fame to head the campaign in its early stages was clearly an error. Rose is an affable cove but not equipped to take on cunning beasts of the political world like Michael Gove’s chum Dominic Cummings, de facto leader of the Brexit bunch.

Brexit’s unholy alliance of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove (what a shower those two turned out to be in their moment of apparent victory) and Nigel Farage grabbed the headlines in a way the Remain campaign never succeeded in doing, despite their majority of airtime.

Advertising only makes a difference at the margin in such big political campaigns. Advertising people can help with strategy though. Would it have made a difference if any of them had been closer to Osborne and co? That’s what Tim Bell used to be for.

For advertising itself, the stream of misleading, in some case downright dishonest, ads from the Brexit campaign give the entire industry a bad name. Why can’t advertising’s so-called regulators do something about it?

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The Advertising Standards Authority’s Guy Parker, writing in the Guardian and referring to the Code of Advertising practice which sets its rules, gives his version:

And so the Committee of Advertising Practice, the industry body that sets the rules, decided to exclude political advertising in its entirety from the ASA’s remit.

It did so for a combination of reasons, some related to the “special case” nature of political advertising. The short timeframes of elections made it likely ASA investigations would still be ongoing after the election had been held. The 1998 Human Rights Act raised concerns about restraining the freedom of political speech around democratic elections and referendums. And last but by no means least, the Conservative and Labour parties did not agree – despite encouragement from the CAP – to bring their political advertising wholly within the scope of the codes.

It would be interesting to find out when the ASA/CAP rule setters last asked them. Back in the mists of history one suspects.

But in any case ASA rulings take an age to arrive by which time the damage is done – as advertisers like Paddy Power know only too well.

The upshot is that the whole affair is a sorry mess, one that doesn’t reflect well on any of the parties involved, political or not.

It will be a relief for those in the firing line that today’s and tomorrow’s front pages will be dominated by the Chilcott Inquiry into the war in Iraq – an even sorrier mess.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.

One comment

  1. This is a pretty lamentable crop of ads, the more so as the agencies involved are clearly proud of them. ‘Lead it don’t leave it’ is the only half way decent line; and ‘once out, the pin can’t be put back in’ is a fantastically prolix expression of ‘you can’t put the pin back in’. (And duh – the poster would be 1000% stronger with the pin out!)
    It’s a symptom of declining advertising thinking as well as creative skills.
    The art of the poster lies in ‘brutal simplicity of thought.’
    If no-one can do a good poster it means no-one is thinking clearly.

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