Free Speech In Advertising?

Background – Make Poverty History had its last TV advertising campaign, widely know as the finger-click advert, removed from the UK’s TVs by Ofcom, citing political advertising.ofcomwatch-logo

Tamsin Allen (pictured below) has a thought-provoking piece on page six of today’s MediaGuardian (Sadly we can’t link to it as they are a subscription-only service, but it’s on page six of the printed version).

Tamsin AllenPartially arguing against the UK ban on advertising by organisations that attempt to “influence public opinion on a matter of controversy”, she says her group will challenge the ban. Allen is right in some respects when she says:

Oil companies can spend thousands on vanity advertising to convince us that the environment is safe under their stewardship but Greenpeace is not allowed to contest that view in the same media.

My reaction:
Tamsin Allen also misses the point in certain ways. Allen’s same logic of unfairness also applies to political party messages, but she discards them into some lower class of speech than (oddly) animal rights. That is wrong. If a group of interested persons – whether organised as a political party or not – want to get a certain message across to the UK populace and that message is otherwise legal, it should be permitted. Picking and choosing the nature of the permitted topic (animal rights, environmental issues, etc.) seems as arbitrary as the current system.

I don’t mean to be flippant about Allen’s cause, but do we really want the aborted ‘My Mate’s a Primate’ ad campaign to be the poster-child for this issue?

The whole ‘we don’t want to end up like the US’ tone he starts off with is just silly. So much of misguided thinking on British media policy is a reaction to some perceived deficit in the US system. Straw man thinking.

If you want a reasoned view of the US system, just click on the Becker-Posnerblog – they covered this precise issue yesterday. Becker notes,for example, that the $4 billion spent in the 2004 US campaign is quite small compared to the $200 billion annually spent by commercial advertisers.

There’s a convergence point here somewhere. Oh, it’s with the Conservatives. And the Labour Party. And even the Respect Coalition! So, like so many other debates we are witnessing, the regulatory scheme developed in 2003 is already out-of-date in many respects.

Russ Taylor writes for OfcomWatch.