Is UK government strategist Steve Hilton a friend or foe of the advertising industry?

Senior advertising executives were probably quite happy to see David and Samantha Cameron scamper up the steps of 10 Downing Street last May.

They had endured 13 years of hard Labour. A total ban on cigarette advertising in 2002 was followed in 2007 by severe TV restrictions on the advertising of food high in fat, salt and sugar. Two historically lucrative sectors decimated.

They also knew that Steve Hilton, Cameron’s policy guru and a former adman, was following his close friend into London’s most powerful office via a side entrance. Hewn from Oxbridge and Conservative Central Office, Hilton matured at Saatchi & Saatchi, the agency that hired him after the 1992 general election, then at post-breakaway M&C Saatchi.

Lord Saatchi even paid him the compliment that “no one reminds me as much of me when young as Steve”. So far so good for adland.

Interesting then to read that the current coalition’s programme for government (p.20) contains a pledge to “crack down on irresponsible advertising and marketing, especially to children”. A noble pursuit and one most can agree with – but a clear insinuation that there is a whole host of irresponsible advertising to children going on.

Even more interesting to consider that the last review of advertising to children, published in 2009, instigated by Labour’s Ed Balls and independently chaired by Professor David Buckingham, found little in the way of evidence to support the notion of ‘irresponsible advertising to children’.

The well-respected Professor Buckingham, aided by a heavyweight expert academic panel including Sonia Livingston, Brian Young and Agnes Nairn – clearly missed Steve Hilton’s blog post from April 2004. The director of government strategy asked ‘Will sexual marketing be the next consumer backlash?’. He wrote with passion about “the relentless drive by big businesses to sexualise small children, ageing them prematurely in the process” and he scorned the “sexual predators of the advertising industry”.

There are lots of fascinating Hiltonisms in the Ethical Corporation blog.

Whether the promise Lord Saatchi identified in the young Steve Hilton was for making prophecies or creating a phenomenon, one can only guess.

The current government review on the , headed by Reg Bailey, CEO of Christian parenting charity Mothers Union, will publish policy recommendations in June. It appears to have taken its brief directly from Steve Hilton’s old blog. The advertising industry can’t be too hopeful.

Veteran political correspondent Adam Boulton of Sky News told a business audience this year that he preferred his long-time sparring partner Labour’s Alastair Campbell to No.10’s current strategy man. At least Alastair Campbell answered the phone, Boulton bemoaned. Steve Hilton is arguably the most powerful man in Government, but doesn’t even speak to her majesty’s press.

Maybe those who worked with Hilton briefly at Saatchi will come to lament not keeping his number.

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About James Charlton

James is a politics graduate who has worked in the parliamentary office of two Government ministers, and more recently as a lobbyist for the advertising industry. He is now an aspirant journalist, tweeting at @jamescharlo.