An unhealthy obsession with advertising

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The Independent Online

The ghosts of Christmas past clearly don't spend much time haunting the Labour Government, or they'd all remember that this time last year Louise Casey, the head of the Government's Rough Sleepers Unit, suggested that homeless charities, with their hot soup and hot sleeping bags, actually helped to keep beggars on the streets. This Christmas, in a £250,000 advertising campaign, we'll be told not to give money to beggars, who'll only spend it on drugs, but to give the money to homeless charities instead (who at the last count only had £24,100 per person per year to spend on the dropping numbers of homeless).

The ghosts of Christmas past clearly don't spend much time haunting the Labour Government, or they'd all remember that this time last year Louise Casey, the head of the Government's Rough Sleepers Unit, suggested that homeless charities, with their hot soup and hot sleeping bags, actually helped to keep beggars on the streets. This Christmas, in a £250,000 advertising campaign, we'll be told not to give money to beggars, who'll only spend it on drugs, but to give the money to homeless charities instead (who at the last count only had £24,100 per person per year to spend on the dropping numbers of homeless).

The homeless charities will then house the drug users, who will continue dealing and using drugs in the hostels. Then there will be expensive police surveillance operations, whacking great trials, and all the charity workers will be sent down for five years at the taxpayers' expense. This will hopefully teach them how to turn a blind eye to dealing more cleverly, or alternatively, how to be drug addicts.

Or maybe the stonewalled beggars will simply use their initiative and turn instead to prostitution, theft or mugging. (Or perhaps simply apply to members of the Shadow Cabinet for any left-over drugs they might have been hanging on to since the Seventies). Sadly, I don't have quarter of a million pounds to send a message to the nation telling everybody what to do with their money, but if I did, I think I'd gently suggest that if you're saving up the money you might otherwise have given to beggars, give it to drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres, not homeless charities.

Not only is the Government overstepping its remit in telling us what not to do with our money, it is also giving us less than helpful information about what we should do with it instead. All this does not bode well for the other exciting advertising campaign that the Government is unleashing on us in the run-up to Christmas.

A cool £60m is going to be squandered on telling those among us to whom it is relevant that we should guard our virginity. This group, apparently, includes only girls under 12 and Ann Widdecombe, so that's around a tenner a virgin.

The advertisements will aim to tackle the lack of self-esteem faced by young girls who feel huge peer pressure to be sexually active. There will also be ads aimed at boys, telling them to use condoms when deflowering young girls so that they don't get them pregnant. If it is the double standards applied to gender stereotypes that make girls confused about sex, this is clearly not going to be the ad campaign that tackles the problem.

Again, it seems rather beyond the Government's duty to use advertising to encourage young girls not to have sex. I mean, if the Government is now promoting virginity, where does that leave Britney Spears? All washed up and with no career prospects beyond marrying a young British prince.

It all rather reminds me of the fabulously inappropriate government ad campaign I saw in Switzerland in the Eighties, just as Aids awareness was really building up. Beneath a picture of two gold circles, entwined Olympics-style, the Swiss mandarins exhorted their population: "Don't get Aids, get married." Don't get pregnant, be a virgin. We've had "Just say no" campaigns before, and we just said no way.

Sometimes one yearns for the age of innocence, when public information films begged us to learn to handle ourselves around water, perhaps by meeting Mike, who "swims like a fish", perhaps by lagging pipes to avoid winter freezing and flooding.

Of course, this tradition continues, with Mark Lamarr asking us only to put the amount of water we need in the kettle, but it is compounded by other stuff, which again and again involves spending a great deal of money and getting negligible results. What did the recent negative advert telling the nation not to be sheepish, but instead to assert their individuality and spend a day at the Dome, do for visitorship? Nothing. What effect did a recent campaign aiming to attract blacks and Asians into teaching have? None.

And why, why, why is the Government running an advertising campaign which absolutely pleads with people not to join the police? Joan Bakewell, John Barnes, Nasser Hussain and Patsy Palmer all appear in ads which tells us how tough it must be to be a police officer, and how by implication they very much prefer being journalists, footballers, cricketers or actresses. Golly! This little exercise in anti-PR has so far cost the Government £7m, paid into the coffers of M&C Saatchi.

Anyway, the problem is not getting people to apply to join the police in the first place, but maintaining their interest after they have learnt the grisly details of the job's pay and conditions. According to calculations published in Private Eye, if the ad spend were instead given to new recruits, they could all have a starting salary of £2,000 more than is on offer. Which sounds much more sensible to me.

But that would deprive the Government of their absolutely favourite activity - hanging out with "creative" types and thinking of glamorous and visible way of saying "Hello! Look! We're on to this! We're doing something!" Except that sometimes all they are doing is throwing money away. Since Tony Blair took office, taxpayers' money spent on advertising has doubled. In fact, the Government spends more money on advertising than any company in Britain. Last year the total spend on advertising and promotions was just under £200m. In the past year it has risen by 7.6 per cent.

Indeed, much of this money is spent on promoting complex and cumbersome tinkerings with the public services. The biggest single campaign so far was that fronted by Thora Hird, which asked the poorest pensioners to apply for the minimum income guarantee, and spent £10m in the process. Around £12m has so far been spent on promoting the working families tax credit.

But at least this stuff is government policy, even if it does come wrapped up in government-promoting celebrity endorsement. Other campaigns have exhorted people to vote "yes" in devolution referenda, which surely breaks the ban on using public money to promote party politics.

The most depressing aspect of this love affair with advertising, though, is the implication that anything can be sold to us, as long as the image is right. But it is the obsession in our culture with instant gratification and superficial appearances that contributes instead to so many of our problems.

The girls that Labour intends to maintain as virgins (no government logo will appear on the adverts because that wouldn't be cool) are constantly exposed to visions of womanhood in the media that entirely contradict everything this advertisement is saying. It can only be a drop in the ocean of material that is telling young girls entirely different things about the value of their bodies.

As for the beggars on drink and drugs, they are in part victims again of unsustainable government images. Young people are told by the Government that all drugs are always bad, but they see among their peers and in club culture that this is not necessarily the case. By the time they realise that some, but far from all, of the propaganda about drugs is perfectly true, it is already too late for them. They are now condemned to become even greater pariahs than they are already, people that any decent moral person should refuse to help, because the Government says they are beyond help. And so another vicious, deadly circle of deliberate, government-promoted, victim-blame begins. And the useful, deserving advertising industry carries on booming.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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