Dominic Mills
Nov 09, 2011

Opinion: Poster industry hit by political grandstanding

"Sex sells, it always has done, and is at the core of many products' appeal, overtly"

Opinion: Poster industry hit by political grandstanding

There is no obvious connection between the poster industry and the current standing of Prime Minister David Cameron’s government in the opinion polls.

But think again. Thanks to a raft of spending cuts and policies deemed unfriendly to families, the government (or more accurately, the Conservatives, the senior member of the coalition) is losing ground in the key voting area of mothers. The evidence is all over the internet, particularly on some high-profile and influential blogs such as Mumsnet.

So, what’s a cheap, easy way to repair the damage with mums? Well, having a go at advertising that sexualises children or, to put it another way, accelerates them towards early adulthood, is one route. And the medium that is most in the firing line is posters.

As one of a group of ad industry leaders called into 10 Downing Street for a summit with the PM on the issue, a representative of the poster industry described the experience as like sitting on the ‘naughty step’.

Few in adland dispute that there is a genuine socio-cultural issue here, but they don’t believe that advertising should shoulder the sole blame when you can see examples everywhere: TV, press and magazine editorial; music videos; fashion; and even toiletries and perfumes.

And why the focus on posters? Well, that’s because as the least-targeted medium (compared to, say, press and  magazines), such sexualised imagery as there is, is visible to all age groups.

The trouble is that no-one really knows how to define any offending advertising imagery, at least in a way that improves on the current advertising codes. Sex sells, it always has done, and is at the core of many products’ appeal, overtly or otherwise. The codes recognise this and already prevent many excesses.

The best anyone can come up with, until at least there is more specificity in the codes and some agreement on how to define sexualisation, is a ban on some types of poster within a radius of certain locations like schools, churches and so on.

It’s utterly feeble and probably totally unworkable, as everyone knows, but that’s how it is when politicians want to use you to make a point.

Unilever wants more ‘magic’

As revealed exclusively by our UK sister title Marketing, Unilever is to embrace a new marketing philosophy calling for, as it puts it, “more magic, less logic”.

The idea is to create an environment in which its marketers (and agencies) are empowered to rely less on numbers and more on big creative ideas. The company’s two most senior marketers, Keith Weed and Marc Mathieu, hope that this means less use of quantitative market research and more inspiration.

Judging by the reaction in the UK, every Unilever agency is cheering this from the rooftops. As they should: it is a bold and liberating statement of intent. Of course there will be failures along the way – as indeed there are with the ‘logic-based’ approach – but Unilever’s hope is that it will learn from the mistakes rather than bury them and individuals responsible.

General perception of Unilever’s peer group – P&G, Reckitt Benckiser and Nestle – is that it is the least numbers-based of the quartet and it has a body of work for brands like Axe/Lynx, Surf and Marmite that backs this up.

I look at recent work from P&G, however, for Old Spice and the WALS campaign in India, that indicate that P&G is, in its own way, embracing a similar philosophy. 

So maybe Unilever is playing catch-up. But who cares? It’s still exciting.

Dominic Mills is editorial director of Haymarket Business Media, publishers of Campaign India.

Campaign India

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