Paul Burke

Britain’s advertising industry has effectively been nationalised

Britain's advertising industry has effectively been nationalised
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Has the advertising industry been nationalised? It certainly looks that way. The run-up to Christmas is usually the time for UK advertisers to spend big. But not this year.

While the John Lewis Christmas ad has been greeted with some fanfare, this is the exception, rather than the rule in 2020. Companies whose businesses have been shuttered and whose customers are locked down see little point in spending money on advertising. In any recession, one of the first things to be cut is the advertising budget.  However, there seems to be one mighty paymaster propping up a lucky few ad agencies: the government.

Walk outside (go on, I dare you) and you're likely to see one name plastered across phone boxes and on billboards: Public Health England. PHE has increased its splurge on advertising by 5,000 per cent, as it orders people to somehow get active and lose weight, even while we're cooped up at home.

Supporters of the NHS often claim that it is underfunded and needs more cash, yet the government has managed to find the money to splash on plastering the NHS logo alongside warnings of the dangers of Covid-19. So millions of pounds of taxpayers' cash is being spent telling millions of taxpayers what to do. Even in the depths of a crisis like this, the sheer glut of government advertising is astonishing.

But as the money has flowed in to the ad business from the Treasury, the revenue from the industry’s regular customers has all but dried up. Advertising spend has plunged by more than £1.1bn between March and August. McDonald’s, forbidden for months to flip a burger, reduced its ad budget by 97 per cent. Sky, similarly prohibited from showing Wilfried Zaha falling over in the penalty area, reduced its spend by 60 per cent. And Amazon slashed its spend by 77 per cent, probably for a very different reason; with a (quite literally) captive audience, they’ve been doing so spectacularly well that they haven’t really needed to advertise.

Those 'I'm lovin' it' jingles may have been hard to love, but I can't be alone in missing them. In their place, we've had 'Stay home. Save lives. Protect the NHS’. Now we have people smiling (mind you, it's hard to tell) down from billboards, telling fellow citizens 'I wear this mask to protect you'. The end of this crisis will be welcomed for so many reasons, not least because we may no longer be bombarded by government propaganda like this. 

Advertising, usually the apogee of fun and free enterprise, now seems increasingly state-controlled; its once-healthy participants crippled by government restrictions. Even its staff, furloughed in huge numbers, are now, in effect, employees of the state

Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell must be green with envy. The entire advertising industry, traditionally one of Labour’s greatest foes, is now largely dependent on the state and, in return, has little choice but to relay messages from government quangos.

Thankfully, though, this dire phase of 'Nationalised Advertising' won’t last forever. The new Covid vaccine is bound to give the ad industry a much-needed shot in the arm. So if you have an advertising budget, start spending it now. The first rule of advertising is this: in order to boost your business, your ads need to stand out. Right now, in the midst of a morass of government-sponsored dross, you’ll never get a better chance to do just this.