UK adland promises to mend its ways on sexy ads

Representatives from the UK advertising and media industries made the trip deep into the bowels of the Mothers Union at 8.30am this morning.

An unlikely place to score a free breakfast, they gathered at Mary Sumner House in Westminster to hear from Mothers Union CEO Reg Bailey, on the recommendations he made in his government-commissioned report on ‘the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood’.

Bailey kicked off the event, organised by industry think tank Credos, with a couple of jokes. Even his own organisation failed to support his recommendations, he said, for “not going far enough”. Now the review is over, he would get back to his day job. In his words, “Carry On Campaigning”.

He was keen to stress that the review team “had not gone down the legislative route”, and instead, they wanted to “remove barriers” to effective parenting, and make it “socially acceptable” for them to complain about inappropriate content.

The great and the good of the British ad industry, those who had steered clear of Cannes to focus on a somewhat more cerebral issue anyway, were in an upbeat mood.

Industry grandee James Best, chair of Credos, chair of the Committee of Advertising Practice and former group chairman of DDB UK, said that the industry should be “responsible and sympathetic”.

There were some polite grumbles. New IPA director general Paul Bainsfair pointed out that one recommendation could put the UK out of kilter with both European countries and the US, where most of the content children consume is produced, and Rae Burdon, veteran ad man and one-time vice chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, questioned the notion that children have been “severely and negatively affected” by the commercial world.

Former Conservative member of parliament Ian Twinn has been lobbying for British advertisers for more than a decade, and he is not usually a man to grumble politely. Though he first accused Reg of taking an “imperialist view”, he went on to praise a “really good report”, and indicated that UK advertisers would be willing to play ball.

Bailey did reveal that the 18 month window he was intending to give the industry to clean up its act was “too long” for David Cameron’s liking. He will be hosting a meeting at 10 Downing Street in October, to check-up on any initial progress, or lack of it.

The prime minister expects. But what does success look like for the “responsible and sympathetic” industry? Fewer sexy billboards, covered-up lads mags and more moderate pre-watershed TV, for a start. And less parents complaining about them. Or more complaints about less of them. Or both. Or neither.

It is defining those ‘success factors’ that will cause the most headaches for the advertising industry. What if they can’t deliver? And, even worse, what if they can?

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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.