Advertising is often seen as a malign force. It can interrupt your favourite TV show. It tries to sell you stuff you can't afford. It has created a strange species of men in large glasses, driving flash cars.
But last week two powerful arguments were put forward in favour of the maligned discipline. One is economic. A report by Deloitte calculated advertising's contribution to the British economy at £100bn a year, around 7 per cent of GDP. This is not only direct spending on the activity by brands, but the effect it has on a market economy and the employment it creates.
The report – Advertising Pays – says the sector sustains 550,000 UK jobs.
At the launch of this report in London, we heard a second, moral justification. The ad man behind the 2011 John Lewis TV commercial – the one where the little boy, right, prefers to give a Christmas present than receive one – argues that advertising not only has the power to move us emotionally, but to be a force for societal good. James Murphy, the CEO of adam&eveDDB, says the retailer's TV campaign has been held up as an example in school assemblies and church services nationwide.
But Giles Fraser, the former canon of St Paul's, disagrees with Murphy. He says advertising ultimately makes us miserable, because its inherent aim is to encourage people to be discontent with their lot; it urges us to buy things we don't really need. He also argues that economic growth is unsustainable and unfairly distributed, and therefore the wrong thing to be boosting.
But this is a diatribe against consumerism per se. And, making the assumption that we are not ready to throw out the capitalist system just yet, it is perhaps more useful to look at how the recession-hit ad industry, and therefore the UK economy can be stimulated.
Deloitte estimates that for every £1 invested in advertising, £6 of GDP is created, providing a more powerful economic stimulus than major infrastructure projects. This is an argument that the present Government – under pressure to provide growth quickly, and hitting crisis point with HS2 and Heathrow expansion – may do well to heed.
Next week: Claire Beale on marketing and branding
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