No Politics Please

How Britain’s advertising rules forbid us to hear the bad news about business

How Britain’s advertising rules forbid us to hear the bad news about business

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 26th August 1999.

Consumer choice is an illusion. In theory, it is the cornerstone of the market economy. In practice we may exercise it only as instructed. When consumers choose not to eat genetically engineered food, they are told by government and manufacturers that they are irrational. Once the fuss has died down, we’re informed, we will be made to eat it whether we want to or not. The customer is always right – until she or he chooses not to buy.

But in no respect is choice restrained more effectively than by the absence of information. The regulation of advertising in Britain ensures that we are allowed to hear only what is good about a product or activity, and expressly forbidden to hear what is bad.

This, in case you didn’t know, is National Fishing Week. Fishing tackle manufacturers have been using the occasion to persuade Britain’s three million anglers that life without the latest roach pole or swimfeeder is scarcely worth living. In the hope of presenting another side of the story, the pressure group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals commissioned an advert to be broadcast on Sky Sport, in which it relays the shocking intelligence that fish feel pain when they are hooked. Last week the ad was banned, on the basis that it is “political”.

Britain’s broadcasting authorities have been banning adverts like this for years. In 1994, the Radio Authority blocked a series by Amnesty International, on the basis that AI is a political organisation. In 1995, the Advertising Standards Authority told Friends of the Earth to withdraw a cinema advert warning that mahogany logging destroys rainforests, on the grounds that “expert opinion… is divided” (experts funded by the industry deny that there’s a problem). In 1997, Christian Aid’s television advert calling for an end to Third World debt was stopped because the organisation’s “objects are… of a political nature”.

Not all adverts placed by pressure groups are banned: earlier this year the NSPCC ran a series on national television campaigning against cruelty to children. This was judged, unlike the advert campaigning against cruelty to fish, to be non-political. Only one thing distinguishes the politics of the two campaigns. No one sells child abusing kits, or organises a National Child Cruelty Week. The NSPCC ad, in other words, offends no legitimate vested interests.

Broadcast promotions are governed by the Independent Television Commission’s code, which insists that “no advertisement may show partiality as respects matters of political or industrial controversy or relating to current public policy.” On these grounds one might imagine that television campaigns by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd, Shell or British Airways, all of which present partial accounts of controversial activities, would also be banned. Curiously, however, they continue to be broadcast.

The ITC’s prohibition, its guidelines continue, “precludes… campaigning for the purposes of influencing legislation.” What this means in practice is campaigning for the purposes of CHANGING legislation. Advertisements whose aim is to create the impression that all is well with an industry are an essential component of the lobbying process against, for example, a reduction in public funds for nuclear power, or the tougher regulation of oil production. If the influence you seek to exert is to prevent political change, your advert is acceptable. “Political”, to judge by the rulings of the regulatory authorities, means offensive to the status quo.

The same approach was used by the Law Lords to invalidate their first ruling against General Pinochet. Lord Hoffman’s voluntary work for Amnesty International was judged to have compromised his independence. Forty years of payment to the other law lords, most of whom are commercial lawyers, by companies with vested interests in despotic regimes has left their beneficiaries blissfully neutral.

Politics (from the Greek POLITES – a citizen) is what happens when two or more human beings interact. Every organisation on earth is political, and everything it does involves politics. The use of this term to define what is and is not acceptable grants the authorities regulating advertising an arbitrary and unaccountable power, which they deploy, again and again, to defend the status quo from those who challenge it.

Advertising itself is an intensely political activity. The British Government will resist an impending Swedish attempt to ban TV adverts aimed at children. The Advertising Association has been lobbying to overturn the restrictions on toy adverts on Greek television, and the French ban on advertising alcohol.

There are several good reasons for preventing political parties and their backers from buying advertising space. But if all politics are to be excluded from advertising, then all advertising must be banned.