Claire Beale on Advertising: For the sake of advertising freedom, we'd better help the fat of the land

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The Independent Online

When you leave the cloistered professional London bubble for a peep at the real world, you notice how many people are fat. Really fat. Fat, fat, fat. Not just a couple of friendly love-handles, but whole bucketfuls of elasticated-waistband-straining blubber. And that's just the kids.

I know we have a national obesity problem; adland's been on the sharp end of botched attempts to tackle the problem for long enough. But there's a difference between knowing it and seeing it – and you don't see so much of it in central London, or in advertising.

Even so, the advertising industry has been working hard on its own solutions to help address the problem of our jelly-bellies. And now, finally, as of last week there is a working agreement between advertising agencies, advertisers, media companies and the Government to come together to tackle obesity.

Oh, it seems obvious enough: leveraging all adland's knowledge of influencing consumer behaviour to mount an anti-obesity advertising initiative that has the Government's support and endorsement. And obvious it is. But don't underestimate the sweat and determination that's gone into getting the show on the road.

The initiative has been co-ordinated by the Advertising Association, which represents agencies, the media and advertisers, but getting them to agree on anything – let alone something that will cost them, in the short term – is virtually unheard of. And getting the Government – not hitherto known for its enthusiastic support of the ad industry – to add its weight to the effort is a masterstroke.

But perhaps most brilliant of all is the fact that the initiative has a £200m war chest donated by the ad community at a time when the industry itself is braced for a very hard financial ride, with marketing budgets on the slide and advertising revenue for media owners hit hard. The fighting fund, which includes advertising spots and space donated by media owners, as well as pledges of planning and creative time donated by agencies, is a tangible sign of the collective commitment.

So it has been an enormous challenge to reach this stage of agreement. But the reality is that last week's unveiling of the initiative is barely the beginning. The hard work starts here. Let's hope the politics do not – there are so many interested parties involved, donating both money and time, that corralling everyone to maximum effect will be a phenomenal challenge.

Some of the country's most powerful companies are involved, several rivals among them: Mars, Nestlé, Tesco, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Sky, ITV. Of course, the greater good should override any internecine conflict. And in this case the greater good is twofold: improving the nation's health, and staving off further punitive legislation against advertising freedoms.

So the campaign will tick corporate social responsibility boxes but there's also a very real, bottom-line, incentive for adland to put its muscle behind it: if advertising is seen to be contributing to the problem (rather than helping to solve it) there will be more calls for ad bans.

The absolute necessity of the initiative is clear, then. I wonder which challenge will prove most difficult, though: persuading the nation to get off its arse, take more exercise and junk the junk; or keeping the ad industry motivated behind its own campaign for the next four years. For the sake of us all, let's hope the Advertising Association pulls it off.

We can only (for the moment) imagine what our UK anti-advertising pressure groups would make of America's latest commercial advance. News junkies in the US are now being served McDonald's coffee with their favourite current-affairs shows as part of a new raft of product placement deals.

The fast-food giant has signed agreements with several regional news stations across America to place cups of McDonald's iced coffee prominently on the news desks of reporters. Actually, the coffee is fake – it's an artificial concoction designed to appeal to the eye rather than the taste buds, because iced coffee wouldn't look too hot after a few hours under studio lights. But the commercial deals themselves are as real as they come.

Attempts by advertisers to escape the commercial break and seep into the programmes themselves are nothing new. They are becoming more popular as ad breaks get more cluttered and more regulated. But the McDonald's coffee placement is the first time the tactic has infected news programming. As you might expect, pressure groups in the US have attacked the deals as another sign of the erosion of journalistic standards. But as the advertising recession begins to bite in America, media owners are grabbing at any revenue opportunities. Without commercial lifelines like this, they argue, there won't be any journalistic standards to be eroded.

There aren't many big, powerful women on the global advertising stage. One of the few, Shelly Lazarus, has just announced that she will be stepping down from the job of running one of the world's biggest advertising groups, Ogilvy.

Every summer for the past few years, rumours have circulated that Lazarus is about to quit. But with the passing of each false alarm there has been a palpable sense of relief in the Ogilvy corridors. Lazarus has run Ogilvy for 11 years and has become such an icon of the agency that she is a very difficult act to follow.

Under her tenure Ogilvy has become one of the few groups to offer a convincing integrated communications solution, spanning advertising, direct marketing, PR and so on. It might struggle to find a flourishing local creative advertising niche, but as a global group of companies, the Ogilvy fraternity has an edge.

It finally emerged last week that Lazarus is quitting at the end of this year, though she'll remain chairman of the Ogilvy Group. And she'll be succeeded by one of her own lieutenants: Miles Young, the Brit who's run Ogilvy in Asia for 13 years. In some ways, it's a dull choice; Young is a loyal and proven servant. But then Sir Martin Sorrell, chief of Ogilvy's parent WPP, has not had great success with some of his more flamboyant big-ticket appointments.

And Young is enormously respected and consummately professional. Like Lazarus, his career took off in the direct marketing sphere, quite unfashionable back then but now central in the digital-dialogue age. But really, it's Young's experience building the business in the vital Asian region that is an invaluable asset in his new global role, and his record of almost doubling revenues there to $500m will have sealed his credentials. I suspect there are sighs of relief again in Ogilvy corridors this week.

Claire Beale is editor of Campaign

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