21 November, 2009

Entice them with the carrot, beat them with the stick

Melbourne Herald Sun, 21 November, 2009

Earlier this year the Government spent $42 billion to give large numbers of citizens $900 grants so they may spend money and therefore stimulate our flagging economy.

But in fact they already have a mechanism that dangles carrots before the public snouts, egging them on the spend money and participate in our economy. This system not only pays for itself, it even contributes taxes to the government coffers. It’s called advertising.

Yes advertising dangles the lure that makes you get up in the morning, and work to earn enough to buy the next new car or mega-TV. It urges you to brush your teeth and dress in style, it makes the children eat their cereals and the adults disinfect their bathrooms.

If the economy was a Bruce Petty cartoon carthorse, at the rear would be the prodding pitchforks and cracking whips of hunger and homelessness while at the front would be the dangled carrots and fruits of the advertising promise.

But then you walk down your high street and see lumbering overweight adults and kids. Aha, you think, too much carrot. But is the answer to jump on the advertising industry for over-stimulating, or is the problem more complex than that?

This week the ad folks have made another move to improve their self-regulation. The Advertising Federation of Australia, which represents the agency managements, has merged with the Australian Writers and Art Directors Association which represents the ‘creative’ side of the business. They will now be called The Communication Council.

A major objective of the new body will be to keep the encroaching censors at bay. Labor governments have always been filled with public advocates and lawyers who want to tell everybody else what to do. And advertising is always an easy target for the reformers.

Sure enough, Health Minister Nicola Roxon formed the National Preventive Health Taskforce early in her reign, who have recently reported back. One recommendation waved a red flag at the advertisers: “Reduce exposure of children and others to marketing, advertising, promotion and sponsorship of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods and beverages.” For which read: “fast-foods, sweets and soft drinks”.

And if they don’t respond to the whip crack, “Introduce legislation if these measures are not effective.” This is what the advertisers are scared of. For many years they have been able to persuade governments of all colours to let them self-regulate.

The Advertising Standards Bureau is the main tool they use. This is the body you turn to when you feel offended by a poster offering “longer sex”. They gather in all the complaints about sexist detergent ads or stick to your ribs double-whopper-burger ads in children’s shows, and make a ruling.

The reformists object because those rules were written by the agencies themselves. But recent research reported that the bureau’s judgements were pretty much in line with public perceptions, while many objections were seen by Joe Public as being a bit over the top.

There are 20 members on the judging panel including figures like Natasha Stott Despoja, Thomas Keneally, and actress Sibylla Budd. Not exactly tools of capitalism.

The ASB promises that it will re-examine its regulations and hold more meetings. Many more complaints are examined these days and last year they forced the withdrawal or amendment of 15 per cent of the ads brought before them.

But I have to confess to a lack of shock at any of the ads we see. Compared to the language on television dramas, or the careless wolfing down of fast foods you see in the street every day, commercials present a chocolate-box world.


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