Sainsbury’s ad furore masks advertisers’ real problem – the growing opposition to corporate mendacity

The UK’s ASA ad regulation body is looking into Sainsbury’s Christmas effort – ‘The Big Night’ – to decide if its brief scene with a boy dressed as a plug is likely to persuade the nation’s children to plug themselves into the mains. Or something.

At least 35 people have complained about it although lots of others on social media have accused the complainants of trying to spoil their Christmas. We all know that everyone on social media is mad – or behaves madly – and this is surely proof.

It’s also emerged that the ASA has banned a ten-second KFC ad (long after the event) which featured a chicken dancing on a roof with a few seconds’ footage of a woman doing likewise.

Well OK, some stupid teenager might imitate it. But they’d need to be eagle-eyed.

Iceland/Greenpeace’s Rang-Utan failed to make it past broadcast policeman Clearcast and promptly garnered zillions of views on youTube and elsewhere (and provoked online howls of outrage at Clearcast from palm oil opponents), further evidence that controversy pays, sort of.

One should some some sympathy for the ASA and Clearcast: rules are rules (Clearcast deemed Rang-Utan too “political”) and, by and large they do a decent job. It’s not their fault that the world seems to be full of nutters who use their objections to ads to vent their spleen at the world.

But is that all there is to it? There appears to be a growing feeling that companies in the UK and elsewhere are up to no good. Banks routinely rip off their customers with ridiculous charges: occasionally they pay for it as with payment protection insurance claims (about £20bn worth so far) but get their own back with such charges and ridiculously low rates for savers. PPI payments haven’t prevented UK banks making billions of profit for doing sweet FA.

The airline business these days is full of snake oil merchants. One thing you can say for Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary is that he makes no bones about treating people like cattle but when British Airways starts doing it you realise the world has turned. Airlines routinely lie about flight times: I’ve been held in a hot, airless room in Perpignan for what seemed like hours, long after the flight should have left, only to be gleefully informed that it’s another on-time flight on hitting the tarmac at the other end. In what machine did they work out the flight time? A Tiger Moth?

My friend Patience Wheatcroft described in the Sunday Times recently how the operator of the 118 directory inquiries service charged some unfortunately caller nearly £20 for just one call. When they were bearded with this they pointed out indignantly that they sponsored a football team in East London. Great. Makes your blood boil, good job I’m not on social media..

Advertisers’ answer to this used to be corporate social responsibility (CSR), meaning good works, like the football team maybe. Now it’s so-called “purpose-driven marketing.” Endless surveys tell us that consumers, the dreaded millennials in particular, want brands to do good in the world. Well they would say that wouldn’t they?

What we really is for companies to play straight: tell us what we’re being charged and try to their hardest to deliver what they promise. Not con us rotten and hide behind the small print.

That surely is why there’s so much anger being aimed at ads. Sainsbury’s may have its shortcomings (not enough staff, half-empty shelves) but plug boy isn’t to blame.

At this rate advertisers will stop buying top class emotive ads (lots of them have already, of course) for fear of annoying someone. They’ll put even more money into “improving the customer journey” online. A synonym for leading us down the garden path.

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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.

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