Whoever ends up running the country after the next election, one thing is absolutely certain, the budget for the Central Office of Information is going to be cut. The Tories got in there first, with the announcement that if they win they’ll be hacking 40% out of its budget. Labour, unsurprisingly, followed suit with a cut of 25%, scheduled to bite in April. I’ve no idea what the Lib Dems are planning, but I have a strong suspicion that they won’t be taking us all for lunch at The Ivy.
This should be big news in the advertising world, bigger news than it’s been I think, because the COI is the UK’s largest advertiser. Its remit has soared under New Labour, its media buying pitch, recently won by M4C (a specially created division of MediaCom), was worth £250 million. When the country’s second biggest advertiser, Proctor and Gamble, spends a mere £170 million, this amounts to a major subsidy. The industry’s bean-counters deserve some credit for this. Whitehall ploughs money into WPP, just as it does with BAE Systems, because it’s a profit-able organisation that keeps thousands of people off the dole and a fair few out of prison. Government invest-ment is one of the reasons that the British ad industry, like the arms industry, has remained truly world-class, whilst, say, British car manufacturing, has quietly died. This was only possible because, like the arms industry, we have a product that we can sell directly to the government. Whereas even John Prescott only needed two Jags.
A massive COI has also benefited creatives in particular, because it’s given us an opportunity to change the record. Most advertising has a straight ‘do’ message – ‘do buy this’. Most, if not the majority, of COI briefs have a ‘don’t’ message: ‘don’t drink and drive, don’t smoke, don’t only eat pies’, and, if you’re under 18, ‘please don’t stab one another in the neck’.
Saying ‘don’t’, without hectoring, is tricky and over the years this has produced some excellent work: Mother’s early Talk to Frank ads were some of the first to address a youth market on its own terms. United’s strapline ‘Alcohol makes you feel invincible when you’re at your most vulnerable’ is a classic. AMV’s ‘Choose a different ending’ campaign last year combined YouTube and first-person camera work in a way that was utterly current and exciting. The sophistication that creatives acquire working on these briefs benefits all the brands they work for. Perhaps it was VCCP’s work with don’t messages for the NHS that became the confident modulated do/don’t message for comparethemarket.com.
But if the effect of COI’s work on the industry has been identifiable, the effect on its audience has been much harder to measure. As Rory Sutherland has said: “Which is better? Hiring more doctors and firemen, or encouraging people not to get ill or start fires? A lot of evidence suggests the latter can be a better use of money.” If advertising changes behaviour, why do politicians want to cut it? Well firstly, there’s something a bit glitzy, a bit Blairite, about a govern-ment that does this much advertising. For a politician seeing a policy translated into a 60-second cinema spot is almost as cool as meeting Bono. But these days every-one in Westminster wants to seem austere. Judge me by what I do, not by what I advertise, they all want to be seen to say.
Secondly, because we have done our job well, our advertising has been visible. And at a time when all parties are looking to make visible cuts this has landed us in trouble.
Essentially, then, these cuts amount to a massive PR stunt – an absence of advertising, used as advertising. The thinking might be faulty, but it makes a good story. What else could we expect from an ex-PR man like David Cameron?
‘Gordon Comstock’ blogs at advertanon.blogspot.com