Writeup – Richard Burdett – Truth and Lies in Advertising

Richard Burdett, who now works for the extremely niche television channel, Horse & Country, came to us with several decades of experience in advertising and gave us a fascinating talk about the industry, the relationship between advertisers, companies, and consumers, how it has changed over time, and how it’s all regulated.

One of the most fascinating observations about changes in the industry that Richard brought up was the disappearance of words from ads. Thirty or more years ago, ads came with a lot of words; magazine ads would have a lot of supporting text and the jingle was an integral part of TV and radio ads — indeed, just putting up a still from an old Fairy Liquid ad had one audience member towards the back of the Chamber Room quietly singing the jingle to herself. But today, ads have far fewer words. Richard demonstrated with a billboard advertising the Channel 4 series, ‘Shameless’, depicting the main character, Frank Gallagher making off with the Channel 4 logo on a white background. There was no other text in the image, aside from the air time and date of the new series; but as Richard told us, the ad perfectly summed up both ‘Shameless’ and Channel 4. Truly, a picture says a thousand words.

True to the title of the talk, Richard also discussed the question of truth in advertising and just how many ads are withdrawn after complaints. Although the numbers of complaints in an average year may be as high as 20,000, the number of ads actually taken down is only somewhere around 4,000. This may seem like a lot, but not when you consider the sheer volume of ads that exist across all media, at which point, 4,000 is a mere drop in the ocean. This is largely because regulation of ads is surprisingly strict. An ad has to jump through a number of hoops and tick the right number of boxes before it’s even allowed to be released to the public and organisations like Clearcast and the Advertising Standards Authority are there to keep advertising agencies honest. That’s not to say that nothing slips through the cracks, of course — some things inevitably do. But regulation isn’t just about truth in advertising; it’s also about standards of decency. For instance, an add featuring a bikini clad supermodel that may seem titillating but inoffensive at a glance could be pulled by the ASA for no more than the model suggestively holding her thumb inside the waistband of her bikini bottoms — although, this does depend on the context of the ad. Moreover, what constitutes advertising in the first may surprise you. The ASA has, in fact, regulated Wayne Rooney’s Twitter account on the basis that some of his tweets were basically ads for commercial products. Setting aside examples of obvious hyperbole — for example, a man who wears Lynx body spray most likely won’t attract hoards of female supermodels; but if this were regulated, half of the ads we know and love wouldn’t exist — Richard defended his own record in the industry, stating that he had never worked on an ad that he felt conveyed information that was untrue, though he acknowledged that there are less scrupulous people in the industry.

Richard also talked about the ways in which ads reach us and how this has evolved over time. We have gone from broadcast ads on a limited number of television channels to much more “narrowcast” ads on a huge and growing number of channels. But, perhaps more insidious is the way in which internet ads are targeted at us. Every time we search for a term, Google remembers this, and the ads we’re likely to see online are generated by our browsing habits. A search for a classic Levi jeans ad resulted in Richard himself getting ads appearing online for — what else? — Levi jeans. To illustrate just how this works, he created a fake Facebook account and basically made the only real interest of the made-up “Mike Hare” chocolate — all kinds of chocolate. And, looking at Mike Hare’s Facebook page, chocolate was indeed all we could see. His statuses were about chocolate, his suggested pages were all about chocolate (and one anomalous entry about Ant & Dec), and all the ads on his Facebook page were for chocolate. Facebook, Richard explained, vacuums up as much information about us as it can — not for any sinister reasons really, but so it can more effectively advertise to us, by targeting us with ads for products it thinks we’ll be interested in, based on the things we like, talk about, and share on Facebook. This is why Facebook really wants to know everything about us; it’s nothing that warrants tinfoil hats — just simple for-profit thinking. And it’s not just the internet where personally tailored advertising can takes place; Sky is introducing smart ads, where televised ads will be targeted at individual viewers based on their online activities, which Sky of course will have access to, because most viewers will watch Sky TV as a package deal with their internet connection and phone line. The worrying part of this, however, is that the way in which ads and content are so tailored for each individual is making it easier for people to live online (and possibly beyond) entirely within our own existing prejudices, rather than ever having to be confronted with information we don’t want to see.

Richard Burdett gave us a lot to think about and his talk essentially took up the whole time slot. There was barely time for one question before we really needed to vacate the Chamber Room, but I hope that any further questions were answered over drinks in the bar. It was a fascinating discussion of the advertising industry from an insider’s perspective, showing that, while we may just assume that ads are full of lies, like so many things turn out to be when you look at them skeptically, I think you’ll find it’s more complicated than that.