No sex please, and no 'NYPD Blue'

Some advertisers are shunning TV shows that might offend their customers,
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The Independent Online
Advertiser power is a force to be reckoned with: it can hit where it really hurts - the bottom line. Television violence, famine-thin super models and swearing are just three issues you can bet will get brand owners hot under the collar. Not to mention the threat posed by media ownership concentration. Small wonder, then, if the UK's broadcasters and publishers are bracing themselves.

The Nineties media owner must already contend with legion hordes - the legislators, watchdogs, press commentators and public opinion. Yet increasingly, it seems, there's a new source of attack. Just last month, Vauxhall pulled ads from the Daily Star and Daily Mirror following unsavoury attacks on Germany during Euro 96. Watchmaker Omega made the same threat against Vogue as a stand against the glossy's use of skeletal models.

The biggest advertisers - particularly those in the so-called "fast moving consumer goods" sector - have always made sure their presence was felt. Both Unilever (which owns Persil, Surf and Radion) and Procter & Gamble (whose brands include Ariel, Fairy and Flash) have had publicised disputes with ITV which kept a number of leading household brands off-air in certain regions for as long as a year. Their complaint? The failure to reach agreement and the approach taken by ITV in its airtime sales negotiations.

Yet in recent months, it seems, the intensity of hostilities has heightened as a broader range of brand owners has lashed out on subjects as diverse as editorial content, scheduling, sales policies and corporate ownership.

"We are a lot more vocal than we were and will continue to be so, and will use every weapon available including the withdrawal of advertising," promises John Hooper, director general of advertisers' trade body, the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers. There are two key areas causing current concern, he says - and the advertising business just can't afford to let them drop.

Firstly, there is the likely impact of the merger mania now sweeping the UK media industry. Advertisers do not want bigger, more powerful media organisations to bully them into buying less relevant media to secure the media space they really want: a practice officially outlawed, known as "conditional selling".

Secondly, there is the environment in which the ads appear.

"Sophisticated media planners claim that where an ad is placed directly affects how well a target market will react to it," Hooper explains. So, advertise around a programme especially pertinent to the attitudes and lifestyle of your customer, and the ad will prove significantly more effective. It may sound obvious, but much TV airtime has been traded in the past more on volume discount than quality.

These days, beware the public backlash against some programmes, as recent reports from the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Independent Television Commission underline. More members of the public are complaining, and more complaints are being upheld. That can hurt the advertisers who sponsor particularly contentious shows.

Already, a number of advertisers including McDonald's and Tesco have specified they do not want to appear around programmes containing violence or explicit sex, although the situation has certainly got a long way to go before it reaches US extremes. The US Christian lobby group the American Family Association, for example, recently urged a boycott of all Unilever goods because the company's ads ran during TV programmes containing "profanity, sex and violence" - such as NYPD Blue.

Says Vauxhall spokesman David Raeside: "Increasingly, we are looking at how the environment affects our buyers. If we think it would cause offence to a potential customer, we think very carefully about where to advertise."

Kimberly Fortier, communications director at Vogue publisher Conde Nast, insists there is no increase in advertiser criticism of editorial environment. "Because of the nature of our magazines, we get around 50 calls a week from advertisers liking something or not liking something - we take them and listen to them, as

we have always done," she says.

Meanwhile, Ian McCulloch, operations director of Granada sales division Laser points out that while media owners have got bigger, so too has the might of the media buyers negotiating on the advertiser's behalf. "Large companies like Unilever and P&G act as a single unit when buying media across all their brands. Consolidation of buying power enables them to buy more efficiently," he explains. "But increasingly there are also large agency buying points, such as Zenith Media and BMP DDB Needham, which trade off their combined muscle."

These media agents can throw a mighty punch. Zenith Media is the UK's largest media buying specialist handling some pounds 591m in client media budgets, according to Register Meal figures for 1995. Such bulk means a buyer can gain discounts through tough negotiation by threatening to take money elsewhere - not just for one, but all clients they represent.

Still, consolidation has also led to diversification, McCulloch explains. "Granada Group trades with many of its customers, unlike many regular TV stations," he says. "So it becomes less of a one-sided relationship." In other words, an advertiser might threaten not to spend pounds 1m on a TV company's airtime, but if the parent of that same TV company was due to spend pounds 4m on the relevant advertiser's products, it might bring that leverage to bear.