Ads won't get government messages across

The Government has spent £5.7m on promoting healthy eating with virtually no impact whatsoever
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The Independent Online

There is no doubt that this government wants to be bossy, sometimes to an absurd degree. Take John Prescott, who told us at the weekend that he wanted all new houses to have downstairs bedrooms. His intentions are kind. He wants British homes to be well equipped to care for disabled or elderly relatives. But a bedroom is only a room with a bed in it, and we can decide for ourselves whether we should move the living room upstairs. If he wants to demand anything, Mr Prescott should be asking for downstairs bathrooms, which are more difficult to reconfigure.

There is no doubt that this government wants to be bossy, sometimes to an absurd degree. Take John Prescott, who told us at the weekend that he wanted all new houses to have downstairs bedrooms. His intentions are kind. He wants British homes to be well equipped to care for disabled or elderly relatives. But a bedroom is only a room with a bed in it, and we can decide for ourselves whether we should move the living room upstairs. If he wants to demand anything, Mr Prescott should be asking for downstairs bathrooms, which are more difficult to reconfigure.

Maybe he will. But he probably won't. New Labour wants us all to do the right thing. But it prefers persuading us to coercing us. This, perhaps, is part of the reason why it is so madly in love with advertising to us. So madly in love, that we are constantly suspicious about the state's huge advertising spend.

Not long after the last election, Panorama put together a show investigating Labour's advertising spend. The Prime Minister, when he was in opposition, was against what he called "the flagrant use of public money for party political purposes".

In office, though, he presided over a campaigning bonanza which long ago saw the Government become the biggest advertiser in Britain. At the time, the Conservatives tried to make capital out of the Government's dependence on adverts, suggesting that it was all part and parcel of New Labour's "culture of spin" and pointing to the suspicious-looking fact that a lot of advertising had been concentrated into the three months prior to the election. Labour's defence was that a "radical and reforming" government naturally had a lot to inform its electorate about. But the Tories were not alone in believing that much government advertising was "insufficiently factual" to qualify as being educational, or so "feel-good" that it was essentially propaganda.

It is true that some of the most innocuous of adverts seem poorly targeted. In police recruitment, for example, retention of new recruits is a problem. So I wonder it is a good idea to advertise for unpaid special constables during breaks in screening of The Bill.

Likewise, a poster campaign for young apprenticeships seems superfluous when such courses can be pushed in job centres and careers offices. The Government argues that it is being inclusive. It's opponents argue that it just wants the rest of us to know about its innovations.

Now, the Liberal Democrats are pushing the same agenda. The party has assembled statistics suggesting that the figures are bigger than ever. They are also repeating the allegations that "there is a fine line between public information and adverts which are effectively promoting the re-election of the Labour Party."

Actually, though, I can't personally think of any advertisement which is that obvious. You could argue that all government advertisements promote the fact that the Government is busy. These latest anti-terrorism ads, for example, advertise that the Government is concerned about our safety, and eager to be proactive in protecting it. The Government would refute this, though, suggesting that this is indeed information that it is crucial for the public to understand.

The trouble is though, that the sensible public understands already. I've been involved on several occasions in "suspicious-package-on-the-Tube" scenarios, and each time my comrades and myself have managed to do just what the advert is now telling us to do. Once, while the IRA was still bombing the capital, a crowded carriage was confronted with a small and sinister attache case with a couple of wires hanging out of it. We all kept our cool, and eventually it was discovered to be a deliberate hoax.

While it is possible to argue that we were just a lucky bunch of particularly self-motivated, public-spirited people, the trouble is that government advertising is usually geared towards changing the habits of the minority that isn't. Much of the evidence suggests that in this it all too often manifestly fails.

One particular campaign, I think, illustrates perfectly and tragically why this should be. At the very start of its first term, more or less, the Government identified that many of the long-term unemployed were functionally illiterate. Ever since, it has been running a television advertising campaign, attempting to persuade people to defy their "gremlins" and apply to do adult education courses.

Sadly, even though the ads are sympathetic and friendly, the take-up has not been that large. Now, ministers are looking into other ways of persuading the unemployed into education, by cutting their benefits if they refuse, and offering cash inducements if they will sign up to courses. This is not such a happy-clappy, individual-choicey, liberal approach to the problem. But it is more targeted, and may prove more effective.

There are other signs that government messages are not getting though to the segments of the population which need most to hear them. The Government has spent £5.7m on promoting healthy eating, for example, with virtually no impact whatsoever. It is safe to assume now, I think, that anyone in Britain who doesn't know that five portions of fruit and vegetables should be consumed a day, doesn't want to know.

Likewise, the huge campaign to combat benefit fraud has resulted in a significant decline in prosecutions. This is a disaster in an area which gobbles up £2bn in public money, particularly when the fact that members of the public reported that some of the adverts in the campaign had shown them that committing benefit fraud was "easier" than they had thought.

Other campaigns, such as the ongoing one targeting sexual health and teenage pregnancy, have presided over similarly disappointing reversals, with the incidence of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease both increasing during the running of promotions designed to achieve the opposite.

Tempting as it may be for the opposition parties to point to such large spends and such small results as indicative of shady dealings, the truth is more troubling. The media is already packed with information. So anyone hooked into it will pick up as much of that information as they want to.

Using the same media, what the Government is trying to do is to reach those people who are impervious to the kind of information that it wants to give to them (or else they'd be likely to know it already). Sometimes the information will get through to the right people, but the numbers involved are a lot more marginal than the expenditure justifies.

This is a huge problem, because it undermines the whole New Labour idea that, while people must be allowed to make their own choices, they must also be educated fully about what those choices are. It is often pointed out that the Government's advertising spend in Britain is greater than any multinational's. In fact, the number two is Procter and Gamble. Considering that all they have to tell us is that their various products wash whiter or cut through more grease, then it's perhaps commendable that the Government is only a few million ahead of them (Procter and Gamble spend £186.9m, while the most recent estimate puts the Government at £193.5m).

What is not commendable, though, is that despite all of the good intentions, much of it is money down the drain. It is apparent that many of our social problems are caused by the activities of a small, anarchic minority. It is time to realise, with some regret, that reaching this minority may need a more robust approach than kindly advertisements.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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