29 Jun 2010

Where next for the government’s ad men?

As government advertising faces a huge budget cut, Channel 4 News’ Samira Ahmed looks at how government ads might change. Considering, of course, have a former PR man as prime minister.

Everyone over a certain age will remember the most famous COI campaign of all – the “Clunk click” car seatbelt campaign fronted by Jimmy Savile in the early 1970s.

What few remember is that it was actually a big failure. Until the government passed a law making it compulsory to wear one.

You might not have thought about it too much, but over the past 13 years under Labour spending on government adverts – mostly through the Central Office of Information (COI) – have pretty much doubled.

The best talents of Britain’s ad agencies have won awards and earned big fees making striking and often very powerful campaigns that aim to challenge and motivate us to change our behaviour.

Many of them are featured in my report (see video).

Where 30 years ago we had to make do with the Green Cross Man and lectures late at night about Think Bike! (a man at a table thumping his hand a lot) now we’re constantly being given messages and warnings about how to behave: It’s especially noticable on commercial radio (where COI spending is 10 percent of their ad revenues).

You’re told to get your HPV vaccine, your Chlamidya test, or go to “directgov” whether you want to go to the dentist, the library or whatever.

(My own children actually sing and drum out the rhythm of the direct gov ad as a party piece).

Sad I know. While campaigns to tackle smoking (including around your children) are widely admired and reinforce legislative changes – the ban on smoking in public places – others, for example on “tell someone” about bullying divide opinion.

Political opponents say many campaigns became expensive vanity projects telling people stuff they already knew, or worse, pushing party political propaganda messages. The Conservatives accused Labour back in March of trying to “buying” the General Election with them.

As Professor Gloria Aycock, who resaerches Crime Science at University College, London told me, you can’t measure the effectiveness of a lot these ads in isolation, as you can with selling detergent or bread.

The Britsh Medical Association’s Dr Vivian Nathanson says the ads are an essential part of a web that reinforces what’s “right”. Change4Life – Labour’s last big health initiative launched only in the past 2 years, more than a decade after the obesity epidemic was first identified – is seen as particularly vulnerable to the new Tory-LibDem coalition goverment’s announcement of massive ad spending cuts.

The COI are looking to save £160 million out of their £540 million pound annual budget.

Though both the COI and the Cabinet Office – from whom I requested a minister – declined to give an interview they responded to Channel 4 News’ questions about the future of COI ad funding by saying: “As part of the drive to reduce the UK’s budget deficit the Government is getting a firm grip on its expenditure.

“Advertising and marketing spend has been frozen this year which will contribute to the delivery of £6 billion efficiency savings in 2010/11.

“Tight central controls will ensure that only essential campaigns will be allowed. Under the advertising and marketing freeze only essential campaigns will be allowed.

“These include: recruitment advertising for the armed forces; information about paying taxes; advertising and marketing by museums and galleries; where the government has a legal duty to provide people with information; and where there is unequivocal evidence that campaigns deliver measurable benefits relating directly to immediate public health and safety.

“Exceptions may also be approved for essential campaigns, on a case by case basis, where providing the information is critical to the effective running of Government.

“So the problem with Change4Life is that it is a new longterm strategy to encourage people to take more exercise and eat more healthily. That stuff that we all know and all too many of us don’t do.

Can you prove it works? Dr Nathanson says she’s seen as yet unpublished research that proves 80 per cent of people are aware of the message, and is urging the government not to cut a project which may be about to see the kind of lifestyle change which will save billions in health expenditure down the line.

She also worries that not enough is being done to tackle the food and alcohol industry’s cheap pricing which may require stronger regulation.

So how might government advertising change? We do, of course, have a former PR man as Prime Minister.

Both David Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne have been quoting the latest trend in behavioural economics; “Nudge” theory (expounded in a book by Chicago professor Richard Thaler).

His theory is based on the idea (and empirical case study evidence) that people often respond better to peer pressure, and subtle “nudges” rather than nanny state lecturing; which also happens to be a lot cheaper.

Some of this (making people opt out of rather than into organ donation and pension schemes) is about manipulating the “architecture of choice”.

I met Thaler in London a couple of weeks ago, as I began researching for my film. He was giving a talk to the cream of London’s advertising industry, and told me he’s being widely consulted by other European, as well as the British governments.

Rory Sutherland – creative director of Ogilvy One – and head of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising that organised the talk, said the ad industry is already using cheaper and more effective methods to get essential messages across.

In 2009 it emerged that the COI had become the largest ad spender in the country – spending more than 50 million pounds more than its nearest rival, Procter and Gamble, according to Marketing Magazine, a rise of about 13 percent a year from 2008, at at time when major companies, such as Marks and Spencer and Renault were halving their spending. Those days are most definitely over.