Former Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Gordon Brown was the keynote speaker at yesterday’s day-long summit for the advertising industry in London, where a mix of politicians and industry figures alike spoke on the theme of ‘Responsible Growth’, and discussed advertising’s role in helping the UK return to economic and social prosperity.
Describing himself as a “non-practising politician … a lapsed politician, you might say, a recovering politician”, Brown opened his speech in jovial terms, quipping that “I keep saying I’m too old to be a British politician, and I’m too young to be an American politician”.
But after a round of initial witticisms to warm up the crowd, he moved onto the meat of his topic, which opened with a stark assessment of Britain today. “We are now seeing poverty in this country that I never thought I would see at any point again in my lifetime. I see families having to choose between eating and heating and keeping clean. I see nurses and others having to queue up at food banks after a hard day’s work, because they simply have not got enough to make ends meet.”
He continued: “This is poverty. That means that 400,000 are living in homes without cookers. 700,000 children will try to sleep tonight without a bed. 1.2 million people in this country have not got proper floor coverings or other basic essentials for the home…. This is poverty that is demeaning, it is demoralising, it’s dehumanising, and it should not exist in the year 2024.
I think we will be honest enough to admit that there are few advertising campaigns trying to find out the problems of domestic poverty in the United Kingdom
“You will hear nobody, as a government minister, talking about it…. It is barely covered in our newspapers, I think we will be honest enough to admit that there are few advertising campaigns trying to find out the problems of domestic poverty in the United Kingdom. I think we’ve got a blind spot about something that is the biggest social crisis in our country.”
Brown then laid out a plan of action for where brands and corporations can help actively contribute to change, by supporting and working alongside charities including The Trussell Trust, The Felix Project, In-Kind Direct, and The Multibank to help provide families with goods they need. A multibank is an initiative to form a collection of ‘banks’ to provide families with products beyond just food. “It’s a food bank, it’s a clothes bank, it’s a toiletries bank, it’s a bedding bank, it’s a furnishing bank, it’s a baby bank, all rolled into one,” explained Brown.
Brands would contribute by providing charities with surplus goods they would otherwise destroy. “Companies have goods that are surplus goods that people need,” Brown explained. “And we know the charities and the people who need them, we can get the goods to the people who need them. These are surpluses that might otherwise be destroyed, or wasted, or landfilled goods that can actually be put to good use for people who need them.”
He went on to point out that this was also an “anti-pollution initiative”. “So we are doing two things at once. Anti-poverty, anti-pollution, dealing with deprivation and also dealing with waste.” Brown explained that they already had 90 companies involved in the project, including major brands such as Amazon and PepsiCo.
Advertisers can also play a role in helping to communicate the need. Citing the recent impact of the ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office in raising awareness of social injustices among the wider public, Brown pointed out the importance of storytelling in helping communicate what is happening in communities. “What you learn from the TV programme is once you raise people’s consciousness about what’s happening to ordinary families and ordinary people, once people become aware of that, then they too get very angry.
“If you in the advertising industry could bring to life some of these real-life experiences … we have not conveyed to people the sheer extent of the problems that many families face. It is primarily working families who cannot make ends meet. I think something can be done about this, this is not something that is insoluble, but we need to show real-life examples of what is happening. To be honest, we spend a lot of time advertising products that are less important than helping people out of poverty.”
Brown did take aim at government policy at times, in particular about how Universal Credit has exacerbated hardship, but he broadly tried to keep his speech politically neutral. “I’m trying to avoid getting into party politics on this matter because I want all-party support,” he said.
Ultimately the answers to these questions lie with government, however. “It’s not going to be the long term solution,” Brown said. “But it’s going to be a way that we can get out of the mess we’re in at the moment. And you know, the important thing about this is it will give people hope. And this is what is missing in the country today.”
Gordon Brown was speaking at Lead, held at the QEII Centre in London on February 8; adassoc.org.uk/events/lead-2024