The Big Lie – the complete book online - 26 Commonweal

Article Index


Chapter 26

The do-gooders


In a 1960s television debate, the erstwhile editor of Punch magazine and self-appointed defender of public morality Malcolm Muggeridge inveighed against the widespread advertising of chocolate, because it was ruining the teeth, diet and moral fibre of the British public. Yet his opposition to censorship put him in a cleft stick. “I don’t think advertising of chocolates should be banned”, he concluded, “but they should not be allowed to do it so effectively”.

Can advertising effect social change? Various institutions spend a great deal of money trying to: governments, charities and special advocacy groups of all kinds. You might expect that governments, managed by politicians well versed in the skills of projecting false images, should be expert manipulators of advertising. In fact they are very bad at it, because governments operate on the policy of institutional truth. To the politically committed, failure is not an option. If a policy to solve a problem has been arrived at, explicated in a leaflet, and perhaps even flagged on television, they believe the problem has been resolved. All advertising by government departments to promote their policies, whether to convey specific information, such as a change to the tax assessment system, or to encourage a change in attitudes, such as the Department of Transport’s drink-driving initiatives, is politically rather than practically driven. Ministers need to be seen to be doing something, and advertising is a highly public way of achieving this. What matters is that an initiative is launched and publicised, not its effect.

Measurement of results is usually omitted, but where it has been undertaken, the fallacy is often clearly exposed. A 1998 article in the British Medical Journal, naively entitled “Public Campaigns do not always work”,1 reported on a campaign run by the Doctor-Patient Partnership, an initiative launched in 1996 by the Department of Health and the British Medical Association to try to influence patients to reduce excessive demands made on general practitioners. In a series of nine waves, a million posters and leaflets were distributed to surgeries and pharmacies throughout Britain. Research with ten focus groups amplified by seventy individual depth interviews unearthed not a single person who had heard of the DPP, though when they were told about it, they were sympathetic to its objectives. Shown specific posters from the campaign, patients thought that an “Enjoying Easter” subject was wishing them a happy holiday, rather than pointing out that routine GP services would be closed over the Easter period, while the use of a rabbit as a mascot led many to believe the messages were intended only for children.

In 1995 the British Medical Association proposed that manufacturers should be required to add folic acid to flour to ensure that all women of child-bearing age consumed enough to reduce their risk of bearing a baby afflicted with spina bifida or hydrocephalus. Flour is already fortified with other vitamins – calcium, iron, niacin, and thiamine – yet the Conservative government opted for a less interventionist policy. It mounted a £2.3 million publicity campaign to raise awareness and encourage use of dietary supplements, ignoring the fact that half of all pregnancies are unplanned and it is too late to start taking a supplement after a positive pregnancy test. This initiative won an international prize from the World Health Organisation. At its conclusion in 1998 there was no evidence that it had significantly reduced the number of affected pregnancies. The women most at risk are the poor, who eat a diet lacking in natural vitamins, and these are the same women who were the least likely to have heard of the campaign.

The odds in any case are stacked against government health initiatives. During the 1990s an average of £460 million was invested annually in advertising high-fat and high-sugar foods, mostly to children, while £1 million was being expended by the government promoting health and dental care. Pressure groups which have protested against hyperbolic nutritional themes in advertising have received little joy from the regulatory authorities. According to a 1994 MORI survey commissioned by the National Food Alliance, an umbrella group of fifty-two organisations ranging from the National Farmers’ Union to the British Heart Foundation, two out of three parents wanted tougher controls on food and drink advertising aimed at their children. The Advertising Association denies that advertising can influence children to demand products their parents don’t want them to have – any more than it encourages adults to smoke, drink, or drive too fast. Against their arguments must be weighed the homely experience of the mother who sees her child jabbing a finger at the television screen. Four in ten said “pester power” evoked by advertising forced them frequently to buy food and drinks. The alliance wanted to restrict meaningless claims such as “full of goodness”, “wholesome”, and “energy-restoring” unless backed up by sound medical evidence. Such initiatives have been deflected by the pedantry of the self-regulating advertising bodies. In 1994 the pressure group Action and Information on Sugars, supported by the Health Education Authority, complained that Milky Way advertising encouraged children to eat sweets between meals and that ITC guidelines were “out of step with expert nutritional advice”. The ITC rejected the complaint on the grounds that the Milky Way advertisements did not literally suggest it be eaten between every meal. The concept of “literal”, of course, derives from verbal or written communication; the regulatory authorities find it difficult to interpret the visual metaphors in which the real power of advertising resides. The NFA also complained about the instant reinvigoration implied by a Lucozade commercial in which an exhausted relay runner was passed a bottle of this sugary pick-me-up instead of a baton, and went on to win the race. The ITC rejected this complaint on the basis that a dissolve indicated a time lapse; thus, it might conceivably have been some other race which the runner was shown winning.

Like all advertising, government information campaigns, which are intended to help people cope with reality, shy away from hard truths, because of fears about voter sensibilities. A 1994 road safety television commercial could deal with death only by denying it, in typical Hollywood terms. A young male car driver ran over a teenage girl. Realistic and jolting. Until viewers were reassured that it’s only Adland after all, as the light relief arose, literally: a ghost rose up from the corpse to berate the driver. This advertisement appeared in a medium in which entertainment programmes maintain a high body count. Nevertheless, the shock of showing death in advertising was sufficient to arouse a protest which forced it to be broadcast after the 9 p.m. watershed, when youngsters who might receive a salutary impression about the consequences of dangerous driving would be less likely to see it. Bereavement was still a taboo subject before bedtime in 1998, when the same action was taken because viewers complained to the ITC about a powerful Department of the Environment commercial in which a teenage boy riding in a back seat without a seat belt was catapulted forward by a crash, fatally injuring his mother.

In less comfortable times, governments did not flinch at dealing in home truths. The great wartime posters shamed the individual: “Is Your Journey Really Necessary?” and “Loose Lips Sink Ships”. That loathsome insect the “Squanderbug” urged people not to buy on the black market in postwar austerity Britain. The Ministry of Information’s early postwar road safety posters were frightening: a chilling figure stood on the verge, a cut-out of a waxen-faced widow with the legend, “Keep Death Off the Road”.

When a crisis suddenly arises, the government, like any manufacturer with a product recall problem, reverts to the straightforward style of wartime injunctions: sober, lengthy newspaper announcements unalloyed by puns or pictures. To allay public concern during the salmonella scare in 1988, the government offered the advice of the Chief Medical Officer under the spartan headline: “Eggs. The Facts”. But the biggest health scare, the threat of AIDS, developed more slowly; the decision to respond to it was debated at length, giving time to develop more sophisticated advertising. For once there was no leadership from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who found the issue distasteful. Vocal opposition came from the Conservative Family Campaign, which included several influential backbenchers. The political masters of the government’s Central Information Office were divided. Something had to be done, without causing a panic, or heaping stigma on AIDS victims, or antagonising religious groups. The emphasis, as usual, was to be seen to be doing something, rather than doing something effectively. Thus, the massive AIDS campaign funded by the government between 1986 and 1988 floundered into the credibility gap between advertising dreamworks and the harsh reality of a modern plague. Prudery was its watchword. Condoms could not be advertised in broadcast media, and so the early advertisements could not even mention the C-word. The divergence between advertising conventions and reality was never so marked, and no other public service campaign ever caused such controversy.

The enduring impressions of the initial £20m campaign to raise awareness of AIDS were portentous television images of an exploding volcano, looming icebergs, and a monolithic tombstone inscribed AIDS accompanied by the doom-laden voice of John Hurt warning “Don’t die of ignorance”. They didn’t tell you much, other than that something terrible was going to happen and it was coming through your letterbox. The information leaflet which plopped on the nation’s thresholds in January 1987 was a shabby compromise. An earlier, more explicit version had been scrapped after sufficient copies had already been printed to send to every household in the land. The new version made no mention of the words “penis”, “anus”, or “back passage”, nor of any sexual activity which might cause skin trauma. Notwithstanding these coy omissions, the campaign aroused the ire of the Catholic Church, which disapproved of condom promotion, the Church of England, which bemoaned the lack of any accompanying moral guidance, and the Chief Rabbi who thought the campaign “encourages promiscuity by advertising it”.

The campaign registered the highest recall ever for advertising aimed at social persuasion, eventually reaching 95 per cent awareness. The creative work, involving stars such as the feature film director Nicholas Roeg, won awards from many creative juries. Though some people complained that the commercials gave their children nightmares, in general it caused little public offence. In a Gallup poll for the Department of Health and Social Security, 95 per cent of those polled agreed that the government was right to be running the campaign. However, it seemed to be quite innocuous. In a Marplan survey for the Guardian, only 2 per cent of respondents found the leaflets too explicit, and under 20 per cent thought they would have much effect. A later DHSS survey confirmed this view, showing that the campaign had failed to dispel some of the popular myths about the disease: 43 per cent of people still wrongly believed it could be caught by giving blood, 15 per cent by sharing a glass, and 9 per cent from toilet seats. Only one-fifth of interviewees said that they used a condom. Another survey, conducted by doctors at Southampton General Hospital, found that 44 per cent of respondents could not name one symptom of the disease.

A tidal change occurred in the last week of February 1987, but it had nothing to do with advertising. Sir Donald Acheson, Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health, became the first person to discuss anal intercourse on television. It was part a television AIDS awareness week, a joint campaign sponsored by all four channels. For a week, whichever programme you switched on, everyone seemed to be slipping condoms onto fingers, cucumbers, or bananas. The Minister for Health and Social Security, Norman Fowler, was one of a host of celebrities who were lined up to say the word “condom” straight out to camera. The absurdity was that condoms could still be seen only during programmes, not in the commercial breaks. As a result, the IBA finally lifted its ban on TV and radio advertising for branded contraceptives, thus eliminating the social stigma of buying them. However, it retained its ban on the use of broadcast media to warn about heart disease, cancer and alcohol-related diseases, on the basis that these were “non-epidemic”. In the view of the IBA, apparently, a disease had to reach epidemic proportions before arguments for prophylactic action could be presented on television.

After that moral epiphany, a much more explicit AIDS advertising campaign aroused much less controversy. The poster subjects included a young girl saying, “I didn’t want to carry condoms because I’d look easy”, and another proclaiming, “It only takes one prick to give you AIDS”. A 1988 advertisement featured four phases of seduction – dancing, taxi, necking on the sofa, in bed – with the headline, “How far will you go before you mention condoms?” By 1991 the scare seemed remote enough to joke about; in television commercials a worker urged viewers to “keep Mrs Dawson busy” in the condom factory, and a priapic OAP demonstrated his reusable condom. The greatest health education campaign of all time eventually petered out with radio advertisements and posters offering travellers an information pack about the dangers of having unprotected sex with strangers abroad. According to Liberal Democrat MP Matthew Taylor, speaking in Parliament, so few people applied for it that each response cost thousands of pounds. This chimed with the consistent finding of research throughout the campaign: while awareness and understanding of AIDS climbed, people did not see themselves as personally at risk. The advertising failed to involve them.

It may have been impossible to do so without offending great swathes of society. Public service advertising – by governments, charities, or single-issue political groups – often seems to set itself impossible tasks of behavioural change. Such efforts are often absurdly naive. A series of radio commercials urged Londoners to use the underground more often – an underfunded, overused service stretched beyond the limits of civilised comfort at rush hour – with a series of humorously intended monologues summarised with the injunction, “Don’t be boring. Go out on the tube”. In 1994 the Spastics Society, recognising that the word “spastic” had long been synonymous with “nerd, “moron”, and “pillock, used draconian steps to stop the abuse. It launched a campaign announcing that it had changed its name to SCOPE “for people with cerebral palsy”. Fortunately there is no indication as yet that the school-age set has taken to calling their clumsy peers “scopes. An award-winning 1995 campaign for the Commission for Racial Equality aimed to reform entrenched racist attitudes simply by depicting turds, rats, and a fire-bomb coming through a letterbox over the clever headline “Junk Mail. Socially responsible advertising by governments – or opportunistic brands – without an effective mechanism for effecting social change is like advertising without effective distribution: there’s no product on sale. When the mechanism exists, such advertising can be effective. A 1994 American campaign for the Humane Society, which seeks to find homes for abandoned dogs and cats, parodied matchmaking ads in the personal columns. Snapshots of pets carried copy such as: “I’m big, bad and full of energy. If you’re into the prissy, bow-on-the-head poodle type, you’re barking up the wrong tree. But if you’re looking for a howling good time, let’s get together and watch the fur fly”. These were placed as individual classified advertisements inviting direct response.

While pressure groups advertise to arouse public concern about an issue and thereby influence government policies, the government itself is technically limited to “informing” the public. However, when Minister for Health Kenneth Clarke revealed his controversial plans for reforming the public health service in 1989, without consultation with the medical profession and adamantly refusing to negotiate any fundamental change, he did so with advocacy advertising in another guise: a £1.4 million publicity campaign including leaflets, conferences, and road shows, and a pious slogan, “Putting Patients First”. When the British Medical Association responded with full-page press ads, e.g. one headlined “A complete list of the medical bodies who support the government plan for the NHS”, over a page blank except for the logo of the NHS, Clarke accused the profession of trying to frighten patients.

In the US, television advertising is a favourite weapon of single-issue political groups. Freedom of choice is a common theme, from the NRA campaign opposing gun laws to the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), which in 1994 equated the freedom to have an abortion with freedom of religion or choice of a hairstyle. The latter was a response to an emotional campaign funded by the anti-abortion interests on the theme “Life. What a beautiful choice”. In the UK, advertising which is deemed to have political content is banned in broadcast media except for political parties. So issues are flagged on posters or in full-page ads in the quality newspapers. Advocacy advertising is a modern version of 18th-century political pamphleteering, confronting the consumer with sometimes perplexing advertisements by unlikely advertisers with a vested interest.

An advertising campaign in praise of public houses might seem a pointless exercise in preaching to the converted. The injunction “Be Vocal – It’s Your Local” was a rallying cry sponsored by the Brewers’ Society, which was contesting a proposal by Lord Young, the Secretary for Trade and Industry, to limit the number of pubs any brewing company could own. Under pictures of cosy pubs which might disappear, the brewers compared this legislation to the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, and after intensive parliamentary lobbying Young was eventually forced into a climbdown. The headline “300 years after the Bill of Rights, a Bill of Wrongs” referred to a less populist theme. The Bar Council was challenging the Lord Chancellor’s proposal to abolish the barristers’ monopoly by granting new powers to solicitors. The reforms went ahead.


Advertising agencieslove charity accounts, because there’s no brand competition and they are a soft touch at award competitions. As they often deal with emotional subjects, the advertisements can be powerful and controversial. A poster with the headline “No one screws more prostitutes than the government” added, in smaller print, “In 1990 prostitutes were fined half a million pounds”. Coming just before the Tory government’s “Back to Basics” morality campaign, it won a creative award, but failed to change the law on soliciting. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to animals was forced to withdraw an advertisement showing the carcass of a horse slung from a hook in a Spanish abattoir, which was judged to be too unsettling. Another, arguing for the reintroduction of dog licensing, showed a towering pile of dead dogs with the headline, “When the government killed the dog licence they left us to kill the dogs”. The campaign stimulated over 20,000 people to write letters of support to their MPs. In the ensuing Commons debate thirty-seven rebellious Conservative MPs deserted their party whip to vote, unsuccessfully, in favour of dog-licensing and the Tory government’s majority slumped to just seven – its narrowest since the 1992 election.

Blatant political advertising runs the risk of demagoguery, losing sight of its real audience, the movers and shakers, in playing to the gallery. The charity Christian Aid pandered to disaffected youth in its 1999 newspaper campaign showing painful close-up photographs of a pierced tongue and a nipple, from which dangled a little chain. The aim was to win support for the cancellation of Third World debt, and readers were abjured to order and wear this chain as a public token of support for this proposal. The text finally conceded: “We’re not asking you to pierce your body with it (after all it’s not hypo-allergenic)” – to the undoubted relief of the establishment bankers and politicians whose sympathy would be essential to the achievement of this objective, and of the wealthy greying population which is every charity’s target group.

Advertising has also attempted to sell God. In the US various fundamentalist cults have built vast empires through advertising, but broadcasting restrictions muffled religious appeals in the UK until recently. God is an ideal brand with a strong emotional appeal unrestricted by the Trade Descriptions Act; no one can prove that unsupported claims such as life after death are untrue. In the 1980s advertising copywriters amused themselves in a competition writing advertising headlines for a notional Church of England campaign, providing the usual display of irrelevant japery:


Party at God’s House – wine-music-singsongs-virgins.

If you normally put CofE on official forms fill in this one. Please list the Ten Commandments in the correct order. No conferring. Call yourself a Christian? Come to Church.

Visit the British aisles this summer.

Jesus Wept!


In 1993 God was advertising for real on UK television. The Revd Robert Ellis spent £7,000 of church funds on a brief television campaign on Central TV for the Diocese of Birmingham and Lichfield. His objective was suitably vague: “It was not about bums on pews. Our aim was to keep alive the rumour of God”. By 1998 an organisation called the Churches Advertising Network was running a Christmas commercial in the Central TV area aiming to get bums on pews through soap opera themes. A series of people were shown with captions such as “He’s on his third marriage”, “She had an abortion when she was 14”, “She’s struggling with a drink problem”. These were intercut with shots of a congregation and a vicar preaching from a pulpit, with a voice-over by the actress who played the troubled Debbie Aldridge in the venerable BBC radio series, The Archers. “They’re not hypocrites, she said, “they’re human. You don’t have to be perfect to go to church this Christmas”.

The storyline of The Archers itself was originally conceived by the BBC as a handy means of disseminating government agricultural policies to farmers, and later a much broader range of public information to a wider circle of listeners. In effecting social change, the icons of entertainment, from soap operas to celebrities, are perhaps more influential than direct advertising by governments and organisations. The qualities they represent are more human, hence more comprehensible and convincing, than policy argument. Governments are, in any case, so circumscribed by the need to please all factions that the social education role is perhaps best expressed by single-issue advocates, even conventional advertisers whose focus is selling a product. When Papua New Guinea became an independent nation in 1975 its citizens, separated by mountain barriers and trackless forest, spoke 400 languages. Given the scarcity of government resources, the job of creating national consensus fell by default and chance to the local importer of Isuzu trucks. A cartoon strip advertisement appearing weekly in the Port Moresby Post-Courier featuring the adventures of citizen Isuzu Lu became immensely popular. The new nation did not have the political maturity to indulge in political correctness: all of the characters in the strip, black and white, were tribal caricatures. The text was in pidgin, the lingua franca of PNG, and while selling Isuzu trucks, incidentally acquainted the various ethnic groups with the customs of their fellow citizens. In one strip the driver of a ramshackle vehicle, a Westernised Port Moresbyite wearing a rugby strip, has run over a pig. Flailing handfuls of cash, he is trying to appease a Highlander, clad only in a breech-cloth, who holds the point of a drawn arrow at his neck. Isuzu Lu, parked nearby in his truck, observes: “Breks bilong dispela Isuzu ol i gutpela tru, na mi amamas tru . . . mi no laik painim birua olsem wantok hia”. Broadly translated, “Thanks to my Isuzu brakes I’m not going to make an enemy here, like this man from my own district has”. It was a useful reminder that to a Highlander a pig represents not only his entire wealth running about on four legs, but his totem, his manhood, his status. The weekly adventures of Isuzu Lu offered the most informative popular guide to New Guinea society since Margaret Mead’s anthropological studies of the 1920s, and was probably a good deal more reliable.

1 British Medical Journal, 10 October 1998, p. 970.


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