Why not ban all advertising?

Let's extend the logic which says that tobacco advertising is morally unsustainable and apply it to other products

Deborah Orr
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:52

SO THE Government has finally taken a deep breath and kept an election promise. Tobacco advertising is now to be banned by the end of the year from billboards, glossy magazines and newspapers.

Eventually, sponsorship by tobacco companies of all sporting events will also be stopped, but not until the chaps who run such "world event" sports as driving the fastest cars in the world faster than any other cars in the world have spent a few years in discussion with each other about who might finance this important activity in the future.

It's certainly a bold enough move, contradicting as it does so many aspects of capitalist democracy that the Government otherwise stands for. The jobs'n'wealth-creating tobacco companies are likely to be much peeved by this, of course, and are unlikely to roll over and die as willingly as the customers they are servicing. As well as muttering about infringements on free trade, they can putter on about consumer choice, unhindered expression and snooker.

In a sense, they are right. Banning tobacco advertising cannot be described as a dangerous precedent, but it is certainly a precedent of some kind. If in principle it is considered morally good to protect the consumer from products that are damaging to human and environmental health, then the bandwagon has started rolling.

I'm not against the banning of tobacco advertising. Far from it. Instead, I'm in favour of extending the logic which suggests that tobacco advertising is morally unsustainable, and applying it to other products. What would happen if the ban on the tobacco industry were considered as a blueprint for deciding more broadly what can and can't be advertised? Let's take a slide down the slippery slope of social control, and see what kind of a tangled heap we end up in at the bottom.

First, alcohol. It damages the body and the mind, plays a leading role in violence of all kinds and, like smoking, is seductive to impressionable young people, who are experimenting with booze in record numbers. Clearly, under the tobacco rule, it has to go. Bud would be wiser if he laid off the lager.

Second, motor vehicles. Not only do they kill and maim people, they also foster aggressive behaviour to the extent that three-quarters of all motorists experience verbal or physical violence from other drivers on the road. As well as threatening the fitness of the nation by making us lazy and sedentary, cars cause untold damage to the environment, giving us asthma and other bronchial diseases and contributing more than any other single factor to inner- city dirt and pollution. They are also a vast threat to the planet itself, playing a hugely significant part in the depletion of the ozone layer and the spiralling tragedy of global warming.

Sorry cars, you're just not wholesome enough to be advertised. Claudia, why don't you just resolve to ditch the Xantia and never be seen in anything at all, ever again?

Hell, while we're at it, let's just ban the advertising of any product that is environmentally damaging in its production, its content or its packaging. Surf may wash whiter, but it doesn't do much for surfers or, indeed, any other water-users. And that means all of us.

Next, sugary food and drinks. Promoting rampant tooth decay and gum disease among children, they also spoil kids' appetites, ruin their concentration, prime them for a lifetime of unsavoury eating habits and sluggish intellectual activity, and contribute to a raft of related health problems. Like cigarettes, they're pointless and damaging, and serve no positive purpose. You don't have to see a big orange man to know when you've been Tangoed.

In fact, let's just ban all advertising aimed at children. They're too young to make informed consumer choices, and anyway they don't have incomes. Let's surprise the kinder by treating them less like mini-adults and see if that has any effect on protecting their innocence for a little longer.

While we're at it, let's protect them from being surrounded by images of adult sexuality in advertising. How about banning huge pictures of scantily clad women from the billboards of the nation? Not to mention the ground-breaking puns such as "Fcuk" which are plastered around the place in 10ft-high letters to promote a chain of high-street fashion stores. Such a move may improve the literacy of children, as well as discouraging them from wanting to have sex the moment they hit puberty.

Let's not stop with children. Is it good for adults to be fed a constant diet of female flesh? While some women may indeed wish their men, not their legs, to be "rough", the billboard advertisement flogging Louis Marcell stripwax with the above slugline has just been withdrawn after complaints that it promotes violence against women. That's not all it promotes. Prior to the total withdrawal, a single poster was taken down last week simply because its position over a railway bridge was causing drivers to crash. This happens quite regularly, usually when posters feature women in their undies, but sometimes when an image of quite another kind is arresting enough to grab a moment of undivided attention. Since this is by definition what all ads are attempting to do, it can only suggest that advertising is in itself a dangerous distraction. Hell! Why don't we just ban it altogether?

After all, while it will make newspapers, magazines and commercial television much more expensive for the consumer, it will make them so much more indispensable. Without advertising, the only way to find out about what's in the shops will be to read about it in the editorial pages or on the telly.

And it will make absolutely everything else so much cheaper, since the money spent on the advertising of all products is passed on to us, the consumers. This can become ludicrous, as sometimes when you buy a product all you are really paying for is the advertising that persuaded you to buy it in the first place.

The most striking example of this parasitical circle, designed to shaft the consumer from every direction, is in the perfume industry. Fashion houses increasingly make their money from beauty products rather than clothes, thus subsidising couture clothing for the rich by fleecing a far wider range of consumers. But they also get away with persuading us to pay vast amounts for a product it costs virtually nothing to make, simply because they spend so much money on advertising it that no publication will dare to expose quite the scale of the con that is being perpetrated. Any more than a whisper of criticism and the fashion houses rise up to withdraw all their advertising, thus bringing financial ruin to the hapless publication that dared to tell the truth. It's remarkable that the selling of pleasant fragrances can stink so much, but it does.

Since the media is regularly compromised by such considerations, there is a genuine argument that advertising is in itself a threat to freedom of expression. This is not, however, a conclusion that the present Government is likely to be drawn towards. New Labour has an advertising budget considerably larger than that of any previous government. So it is safe to assume we'll be sticking with a ban on tobacco ads alone for the foreseeable future. But it's not so safe to assume that these therefore are the only products that are bad for your health and for the environment. They're just the ones that get up people's noses in a particularly obvious and noxious fashion.

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