Claire Beale on Advertising

Health warnings on car ads could choke up the entire media sector

Imagine that the bottom fifth of this page carried a large message warning you that what appears on the other four-fifths could seriously damage your health. You might be inclined to move on quickly to a safer section of this paper, and who could blame you?

Of course, if you were addicted to my column you would ignore the warning and read it anyway, the risk adding a tang of pleasure to the task. Smokers will understand.

And so will tobacco companies, who for years lived with literal health warnings taking up a chunk of their advertising message. Back in the days when they could advertise, before fag ads were banned altogether, highlighting the dangers of tobacco was a key part of every ad.

Now the motor industry faces a similar imposition. New proposals have been approved by the European Parliament that would force car advertisers to devote 20 per cent of their commercial messages to warnings about CO2 emission levels. So one-fifth of every press ad, TV spot, poster and radio campaign should caution against the environmental impact of the vehicle being advertised. Can you hear creative teeth gnashing?

For an ad industry already under siege, this is nothing short of catastrophic. Although the "health warning" proposals have a way to go before they come into force, they are a clear signal that advertising is being held to account for some of the biggest issues of our age. First obesity, now the environment – adland is the fashionable whipping boy for a political system desperate to be seen to act, thrashing around for an easy target.

Obviously, plenty of car ads already make a play about the relative environmental friendliness of their models (the new Lexus Hybrid ad, the award-winning Honda "Grr" campaign), and car manufacturers are acknowledging the competitive edge that environmental claims can lend. But that's all very different from welcoming draconian and intensely intrusive regulations that compromise the overall commercial message and kick creativity where it hurts.

Even carmakers with a more positive CO2 story might baulk at their beautiful ads being ambushed by a crude, enforced green statement. Chances are they'll look for new ways to promote themselves, out of the traditional advertising space. So the real victims of the "health warnings" would be the media owners who rely on ad revenue from the motoring industry.

So what? The media rarely attract much sympathy; who cares if their revenues are castrated? Except that it's the ad revenue that sustains the diversity of our media. Consider how many car ads plump out your Sunday supplement or help keep your niche satellite channel in business.

OK, that's a crude equation. But we know that the junk food ad ban is affecting investment in kids' programming; curbs on advertising have a direct and damaging effect on the quality and extent of our media choices, no question. And, of course, this is not the end. If car ads are to get health warnings, then ads for foreign travel won't be far behind, and the threats to alcohol and toy advertising are well rehearsed and very real.

But perhaps the most shameful aspect of this latest bludgeoning is that the ad industry itself is, by and large, standing back and letting it happen. Oh, I know the trade bodies and the Advertising Association are doing their best, but without the real, active support of their members, their ability to mount a defence is pathetically compromised. And the media owners, whose lifeblood is arguably more directly affected, are even more apathetic. It's not only shameful, it's deeply depressing.

Over in another corner of adland, the planet is also causing trouble. In these greener times, the direct marketing industry is under the cosh.

Well, not the direct marketing industry in its entirety, but the bit that's better known as junk mail. British advertisers spend £2bn every year on "junk mail". Lots of it isn't actually junk at all, of course, but the poor direct marketing industry just can't seem to shake off the tag.

And if that wasn't enough, the industry is now coming under the green spotlight for its environmental impact. Drastic measures are clearly required.

So adland has now decided on a campaign plan to try to promote a more positive image for the direct marketing industry. Mind you, if adland's attempts to do the same for advertising as a whole are anything to go by (see above), let's not get our hopes up.

The campaign is a cross-industry effort, with all the main bodies signing up to defend and promote direct marketing freedoms while committing to reduce waste through "a positive environmental approach". And the Direct Marketing Association has this month joined forces with BSI British Standards to introduce a new kite-mark for environmental performance in direct marketing.

Does the DM industry deserve its wasteful reputation? Well, the bald facts suggest that it does. Of all the unsolicited mail that drops on to our doormats, only about 10 per cent of it ever generates any response; so that's 90 per cent that gets discarded, often without even being opened. In an age when paper reduction and recycling is becoming a social imperative, that's a deeply disturbing – and industry-theatening – figure.

The industry will have to move quickly, and loudly, to stave off any punitive legislation. It does have a sound case to make in its defence. For starters, without the revenues our "junk" mail generates, our fragile postal service would probably collapse.

But the real issue is the fact that 90 per cent of direct mail is utterly wasted. It says something particularly unpalatable about the quality of DM creativity that it fails to engage us so often. All too often it seems that, rather than trying to raise the creative bar, the industry seems to simply be throwing more paper at the problem; instead of getting a single page of direct mail that hooks you, you get several pages of poorly written and impenetrable mush.

Greater sensitivity to the environmental issue is imperative. But measures such as using recycled paper and encouraging recycling must go hand in hand with better, tighter creativity if the industry is to begin to answer its green critics.

And finally, a word about the new Microsoft/Facebook alliance. Plenty of adlanders will be scratching their heads over the $240m deal.

Microsoft's minority stake in the social networking site gives Facebook a valuation of $15bn. Now, in the old media world such valuations (though few were ever on this scale) were based in part on the healthy ad revenues being delivered. But Facebook's commercial revenues are slender, and the company is expected to make a modest $30m profit this year out of its 49 million (and growing, growing) users.

Microsoft will now sell ads on Facebook, so in theory profits will soar. Except that social networkers are often both trend-seekers and anti-advertising. If you believe the cynics, Facebook's current popularity will fade as quickly as it arrived when the next big thing comes along. The arrival of the mighty Microsoft and its commercial punch might just hasten the exodus.

Beale's best in show: Audi R8 (BBH)

If car ads get the nanny state treatment (see left) and are forced to carry CO2 emission warnings, beauties like this one will become a thing of the past.

Not that that might bother Audi much. The company is doing a fine job already of exploring new communications channels. Have you heard the Audi CD or watched the Audi channel? The car manufacturer has already established itself in the content arena, so we should be grateful that it's also still banging out traditional advertising treats – like this bit of lush car porn from Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

It's a long, fast road away from the testosterone-fuelled ads that tend to dominate the high-performance end of the category. It's slow, lyrical and deeply soothing, to reflect Audi's claim that the R8 is "the slowest car we've ever built".

Best of all though, is the music that accompanies it: Simone White's Beep Beep Song. In these days of Sky Plus fast-forwarding, a superb soundtrack is more vital than ever to get viewers hitting that play button.

A warning, though: try to imagine the mellow mood that is lovingly created by this ad being interrupted by a crass CO2 emissions message.

Claire Beale is the editor of 'Campaign' magazine

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