Government ads: made to make your eyes water

‘Advertising is based on one thing: happiness’, says Don Draper. Not for the British government, it isn’t.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Politics UK

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

We are disease-ridden, junk-food addicts selfishly condemning future generations to parched-Earth misery. We are bad parents who will end up killing our kids by stuffing them full of snacks. We are potential wife-beaters who don’t know when to stop drinking, how to cross the road, or even why it’s important to vote.

Nothing better reveals the contempt in which the New Labour government holds the British public than its advertising campaigns. Millions of pounds are being spent to ensure that wherever there is a potential captive audience there will be a government advert telling you how disgusting you are. The analysts at Nielsen Media believe that on TV, radio and on billboards, the government has around 3.7million advertising slots in a single year.

Despite the recession, the government spent £211million on advertising in 2008/9, a 35 per cent increase on the previous year. That looks set to rise to £232million in 2009/10. The advertising industry has hailed the government as its ‘lifeblood’ and has rewarded the Central Office of Information (COI) with numerous accolades, including ‘advertiser of the year’ and ‘advertiser of the decade’.

Mark Lund, chief executive of the COI, says ‘the need for government to communicate with the public is greater than ever as society faces challenges such as obesity, climate change and the recession’. However, the days when public information campaigns simply imparted information to the public are long gone. Now the aim is to scare us into submission and make us feel so disgusting and/or guilty that we will change our habits.

Smokers, predictably, are one of the main targets of the government’s guilt-tripping ads. Smoking mothers in particular are singled out. Some ads now feature children expressing their concerns that their mothers will die. ‘I’m not scared of the dark, I’m not scared of clowns… but I am scared of my mum smoking’, one young child reveals, as the message ‘Your smoking affects your loved ones more than you think’ appears on screen.

Children are shown pleading with their mums to quit. A recent anti-smoking advert showed a child alone in a train station getting more and more distressed. The message was clear: smokers face an early death which means abandoning their kids to fend for themselves. To smoke is to be a bad, uncaring parent.

Even when mums mean well, apparently they’re still unwittingly abusing their children. One advert produced by Wallace and Gromit animators Aardman, which is part of the anti-obesity Change4Life campaign, shows a depressed child sitting at a table as his mum uses a forklift truck to dump bangers and mash on to his plate. ‘Mum loves me and thinks lots of food will make me big and strong. But she gives me enough to feed a horse. She forgets I don’t need grown-up portions’, says the kid. In short? Parents don’t know what’s best for their kids.

The government’s poisonous idea that adults are selfishly condemning future generations to misery is most explicitly stated in its Act on CO2 ‘Bedtime Story’ campaign. A father reads a story to his young daughter about the effects of climate change: ‘Scientists said it was because of too much CO2 which went up into the sky when the grown-ups used energy. And it was the children of the land who would have to live with the horrible consequences.’ Cue picture-book scenes of towns being flooded and puppies drowning.

That ad was apparently devised on the back of surveys which suggested that half of Britain’s adult population doesn’t believe in manmade climate change. So, faced with a sceptical public, the government’s response is not to have democratic debate and public argument, but to wheel out a pernicious form of the politics of fear.

If Department of Health (DoH) advertising campaigns are anything to go by, then we’re so disease-ridden anyway that it would probably be better if we didn’t have any contact with each other and avoided having children in the first place. Condoms, say the most recent adverts, are ‘essential wear’, barriers between partners, because it’s impossible to tell who might be infected with chlamydia and other STIs. In the DoH’s view, it is a shame that people don’t wear labels advertising their diseases (one of its ads shows young people with underwear saying ‘chlamydia’ or ‘gonorrhoea’) and so we had better all stay safe by assuming the people we meet and sleep with are dirty and diseased.

As well as diseased, we’re also drunken louts. A recent anti-binge drinking campaign shows comedian John Luke-Roberts goading confused people in the street to scream abuse at each another, get into fights and throw things through windows. The deeply patronising message is that this is the kind of thing we do when we’re drunk, and isn’t it just really embarrassing? In their view, we don’t know how to handle our drink and there is an uncontrollable yob lurking within us all.

Apparently we’re even socially clueless when we’re sober. The ‘pro-social’ advertising campaign Together for London features cartoon characters instructing us on how to be more civil when travelling through London. ‘I won’t eat smelly food’, one says. ‘I’ll keep my feet off the seat’, says another.

And of course, how could you expect such a diseased, drunken, potentially violent populace to take elections seriously? An advert in London in the run-up to the 2008 mayoral elections suggested that we might be ‘easily distracted by ooh, ooh look a mouse’ and then forget to vote. The fact that looking at a mouse might actually be more exciting than anything Boris Johnson has yet said or done is never considered.

All of this is enough to make you nostalgic for the good old days of 1960s advertising, where, in the words of Don Draper of Mad Men, ‘Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.’

In the hands of the UK government the basis of advertising is the polar opposite. It’s about fear rather than freedom from fear, it’s about causing distress and screaming through every possible medium that whatever you are doing is disgusting. You are disgusting.

It might sound like a relief, then, that almost all of Britain’s political parties accept that the advertising spend must be cut. The Tories – in one of their only concrete proposals for cuts so far – say as much as 40 per cent will be cut in advertising if they get into government; Labour says it will cut 25 per cent over two years. But this is about saving money rather than saving the public from the political elite’s obvious disgust for our lifestyles and choices. Trimming the advertising budget is no match for having a serious debate about why the powers-that-be look at us with such not-at-all concealed contempt these days.

Patrick Hayes is one of the producers of the Battle for Politics public summit taking place on 20 March 2010.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill called advertising a free-speech issue. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick attacked anti-smoking propaganda. Shirley Dent analysed a Greenpeace anti-4×4 advert. Lee Jones looked at the re-education of children to become eco-pests. Tim Black criticised the attempts of the BMA to censor ‘pro-smoking’ imagery.Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today