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Catching a cold over advertisers' tactics

Paul McCann
Thursday 22 January 1998 00:02 GMT

George Orwell once declared that advertising was the equivalent of rattling a stick inside a swill bucket. But at least pigs liked the swill in the first place.

Orwell's aphorism underestimates the power of adverts to create a demand where none previously existed. And one of its oldest ways of doing this is by playing on people's fears.

It is the advertising trade more than any other that has convinced us: that we are smelly - so it could sell deodorant; that we are a bad mothers - to sell washing powder and Oxo cubes; or that we are fat - to sell just about everything.

Insurance company Allied Dunbar's particularly nice line on this with its "commuter on a train" advert is that we are all facing imminent death.

Now the Advertising Standard's Authority is to investigate complaints from the public that Lemsip is trying to convince us that if we take a day off sick we'll be sacked.

In its current poster campaign Lemsip asks: "What sort of person goes to work with the flu?" and gives the reassuring answer: "The person after your job - Stop snivelling and get back to work."

A dozen complaints have been made to the advertising watchdog about the posters and the investigation will centre on whether the ads are irresponsible.

For John Monks, general secretary of the TUC, they are more than that: "These adverts are in very bad taste and do play on people's very real fears," he said yesterday on BBC radio. "One third of all workers say they are afraid of taking time off work when they are ill and the advertisers have played on those fears."

Psychologists have echoed the TUC's complaints, saying that the ads will contribute to a culture where being ill is something wimps do. Reckitt & Coleman, which makes Lemsip, claim that the ads are tongue in cheek - the stock response to being caught doing something distasteful - and can make no difference to those who are sick because they can only be seen by people who have already decided to go to work.

This somewhat literal interpretation of the way that advertising works is at best disingenuous. Gordon Brown thinks our flexible labour market makes us the envy of Europe. What he means is that it makes us the envy of Europe's managers.

We already work like the parody childhood of Monty Python's `Four Yorkshiremen' because of a lack of job security. Britain hardly needs the Protestant work ethic as sponsored by a flu remedy.

Earlier this week, the Advertising Standards Authority censured fashion retailer French Connection's "fcuk" posters for bringing advertising into disrepute. Which is rather like saying Saddam Hussein has given chemical warfare a bad name.

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