Am I allowed to mention Nigel Farage? Of course I am, this is The Spectator, and its readers enjoy analysing all kinds of people and ideas, even those they find unpalatable. Readers of Campaign, however, aren’t quite as broad-minded. Campaign is the trade magazine of the advertising industry, and when it published an interview with Farage some of its readers went into meltdown.
Why? Surely Farage is the ideal subject for Campaign. He’s connected with millions of loyal consumers in ways other brands can only dream of. You’d think that people in the advertising world would want to hear how he did it, given that building brands and connecting with people are exactly what they’re supposed to do. You’d think they might want to learn from someone who’s done these things so recently, quickly and successfully. But you’d be wrong.
For about 20 years, the advertising industry has engaged itself in a bizarre charade called ‘Pretending to be left-wing’. Instead of talking about advertising, the pages of Campaign are filled with industry leaders espousing standard-issue, establishment-approved liberal values. And although advertising remains the acme of capitalism, they like to pretend it’s a compassionate, caring, almost anti-capitalist co-operative.
It’s almost beyond satire, because it’s hard to imagine a more ruthless, right-wing industry than advertising. Its very purpose is to capitalise on capitalism and make a great deal of money. This template was pretty much set up by Charles Saatchi and Margaret Thatcher, and Campaign itself is owned by Michael Heseltine. How much more ‘Tory’ can you get? But rare is the advertising person with the courage and candour to confess to voting Conservative — and I’m not sure there’s a single one who’d admit to admiring the promotional prowess of Nigel Farage. If the industry is in trouble, this lack of curiosity and diversity of thought might well be why.
Two decades ago, advertising thrived on rocking the boat and irking the establishment. The industry embraced misfits, mavericks and anti-establishment figures; the people who looked at things differently, the agents of change. People like… well… Nigel Farage. Industry types may well have loathed him and his views, but they’d have been keen to explore his message and his methods. To an extent, the internet is to blame for the industry becoming so nervous. The Advertising Standards Agency gets an astonishing amount of complaints — 33,000 last year. It’s all too easy to send an outraged tweet to the ASA. But I sometimes wonder if this climate of reproval began with New Labour.
In 1997 I was involved in the advertising that helped propel Tony Blair into Downing Street. The brief was simple, sly and smart: take a lot of Tory policies, remove the blue packaging, carefully re-wrap them in red and replace the ‘r’ in ‘Tory’ with an ‘n’. It worked like a dream, allowing people to vote Labour while still retaining all their free-market privileges. But with this campaign came an oppressive culture of groupthink, of always being ‘on message’. Behind the veneer of virtue, the Labour establishment instilled a real fear of stepping out of line. And unfortunately, that’s where the advertising industry is stuck; compliant, censorious and terrified of offending the establishment.
Creativity is about what you think, not what everyone else thinks. It involves originality and being open to new ideas. A constant and clichéd claim by ad agencies is that they’re ‘brave’, ‘unconventional’ and ‘disruptive’. But when faced with someone like Farage, who is undeniably all these things, they try to no-platform him. His views fall foul of the establishment’s, therefore he must be silenced. You’d have thought any advertising agency would relish a challenge like a referendum campaign, but apparently Vote Leave couldn’t find a major agency who’d work with them. A multinational corporation, however, whose trainers are made by child slaves in sweatshops? No problem.
While the advertising business remains resolutely ‘on-message’, the world — and the message — moves on. Under Blair, advertising people could vote Labour, safe in the knowledge that the party would not seek to damage their industry. Not any more. Advertising is everything Corbyn and McDonnell despise. So if it ever came to a simple choice between two extremes, the ad industry would have to face an uncomfortable truth: it might be better off dropping the pretence and returning to its right-wing roots.