The Media Column: Sainsbury’s Christmas advert on the 1914 Christmas truce upset many people, yet it was the most viewed ad on YouTube last year.

In 1979 Silk Cut ran a cinema advert, set in “Mbongoland”, featuring a blacked-up John Bird talking to camera in a fake South African accent. The colonial scenario, which concluded with cigarette-puffing Brits casually bayoneting Zulu warriors, failed to prompt any notable expressions of outrage from audiences Ethical considerations, it’s fair to say, did not take up much time in the long “working” Soho lunches enjoyed by the buccaneering “Mad Men” of a previous advertising generation.

But their successors today need to navigate a world of connected consumers, who are quick to howl their outrage on social media at offensive and intrusive selling, and have the power sink a company’s share price with the click of a “boycott” hashtag.

The passive acceptance of Silk Cut’s casual racism contrasts with the swift reaction to Sainsbury’s “WW1 truce” Christmas advert, which generated 700 viewer complaints. They found it a cynical exploitation of those who fought in the war simply to promote a supermarket brand.

An Advertising Association (AA) report last week argued that without the £17.5bn spent on sport, arts, newspapers, magazine and cinema advertising many of those services which people enjoy in their daily lives simply would not exist. Advertising now makes a £100bn total contribution to the UK economy.

However consumer trust in advertising is falling – AA figures show that in the past 20 years the 51 per cent of the public who described themselves as favourable to advertising had fallen to 27 per cent; those unfavourable have, in the same period, grown from 17 per cent to 28 per cent.

“Embarrassingly and rather ironically, our brand, advertising, has an image problem,” said Richard Eyre, chairman of the Internet Advertising Bureau. “Advertising is not trusted when it needs to be.”

Last week advertising’s leaders met at LEAD 2015, a London conference to discuss a “new deal”, which would place “transparency” and “commercial ethics” at the core of their business, and fend off any Government threat to the industry’s fiercely-guarded code of self-regulation.

Mr Eyre said: “Word of mouth is now a mass medium, more powerful than any paid-for advertising, so the balance has tipped away from the giants with the deep pockets in favour of the newly potent midgets.

“Garish claims on behalf of brands will be exposed – or pilloried in social media.”

Tim Lefroy, the Advertising Association’s chief executive, said: “If an activity is not seen by policy-makers as responsible, then politicians are much more likely to interfere. Right now the gambling sector is being bullied by Government with threats of legislation, imposing watershed bans on ‘free bet’ advertising.”

“But maybe our industry should be embarrassed that a 600 per cent increase in gambling advertising volume since deregulation has brought the Government to the table with potentially anti-competitive remedies that could override the advertising self-regulatory system and the evidence base.”

The explosion in mobile and web advertising, now targeted directly at Google and Facebook users through real-time, data-driven algorithms, has exposed consumers to a daily blitz of messages for products.

Eileen Naughton, managing director of Google UK & Ireland, said the search engine’s intent was to “help advertisers discover their target market more effectively.” Google filters “tens of billions of data signals” every day.

Automated software sends messages that respond to a customer’s search history. “Programmatic advertising eliminates a lot of wasted time for advertising, and is better for the consumer too,” Ms Naughton said.

She added: “Google takes its responsibility to privacy very seriously. Consumers can control all the information in their accounts through ad preferences. Bad ads can ruin people’s experience and trust in advertising. More than 350 million bad ads (those deemed deceptive or harmful) were removed by Google in 2013.”

The reduction of advertising to an automated digital selling experience concerns the industry’s “creatives” who believe they must try even harder to reach an audience which can easily evade commercial messages.

Sarah Tate, managing director of Mother London, the agency that works with clients including Boots and Ikea, said: “We see consumers finding content in areas without advertising. Ad-free content providers (Netflix and Amazon) won more Golden Globes than standard networks.”

Instead of sending ideas out for weeks of testing, consumer data is now available instantly. “There’s an enormous excitement in big data. The focus on ‘views’ and ‘likes’ can lead to homogenous content and quantity over quality,” Ms Tate said. “The risk is we get so excited by focusing on new forms of access (to customers) that we overlook the role ideas play.”

“It would be easy to reduce advertising to an efficiently delivered messaging matrix, but we’d lose the consumer. The joy and the magic would be squeezed out.”

“If we walk away from creativity, we do so at our own peril. If we don’t aim high, the talent will drain and so will the level of engagement with brands.”

Brands which succeed in engaging with consumers in an innovative way include Jamie Oliver, whose Instagram account, offering cooking tips and family photos, has 2.4 million followers, Ms Tate said.

Pop-up videos which cannot be skipped infuriate web-surfers. But deliver entertaining content and viewers themselves will do the marketing job for a brand. Mother’s new ad for price comparison site, which features a man so excited about the money he has saved via the site that he embarks on a booty-shaking “epic strut”, has gone viral, racking up one million views on YouTube.

“Advertising is still a very powerful form of popular culture. Good selling can still be good taste and good art,” said Ms Tate, who believes the industry should “encourage people to apply their own ethical judgements” to its work. The industry has come a long way since its mantra – “if it’s legal to sell something, then it should be our right to advertise it” – allowed campaigns like the Silk Cut advert.

Yet a controversial campaign which prompts a deluge of complaints can have benefits too. Sainsbury’s Christmas advert upset many people, and yet it was the most viewed ad on YouTube last year.

Originally published on The Independent, 29 May 2019.