James Papworth: Is advertising good for the soul?

James Papworth, the marketing director of the Professional Publishers Association, analyses the Debating Society’s evening discussing whether “advertising is good for the soul”, which took place earlier this week.

Photo of James Papworth

“When a former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral opposed the motion that ‘advertising is good for the soul’, there was always a risk things could veer off into spiritual territory.

However, few who crowded into the sun-warmed committee room at the House of Commons expected the debate to meander along a path that considered whether the crucifix could be perceived as the forefather of the logo, and the gospels the precursors to brand guidelines.

Speech draws from the Declaration of Independence

Meredith’s speech drew from the Declaration of Independence: “advertising is good for the soul”

Charlie Meredith, managing director of advertising at IPC Media, drew from the US Declaration of Independence in his opening pitch in support of the motion “advertising is good for the soul”.

He stated that both he and his seconder, chief executive of the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, Philip Thomas, felt it was “a truth they held to be self-evident”.

10 reasons advertising is economic fuel

Meredith followed with 10 rational points that defended advertising’s contribution as “an economic fuel: the oxygen that ignites market success”. The industry employs over half a million pople, contributes £3.6 billion in tax revenue and drives exports, he said, and such economic benefits in turn benefit us as individuals.

Meredith moved on from economics to emotion, demonstrating how advertising can communicate vital information that enables choices, with the potential to both save and enrich lives. He put forward the argument that advertising is the mechanism that sustains investment in entertaining content.

And so the gauntlet passed to Rev Dr Giles Fraser, parish priest at St Mary’s, Newington and author of The Guardian’s ‘Loose Canon’ column, who challenged the motion by taking the chamber back to Cambridge in 1928 and John Maynard Keynes’ prophecies on capitalism.

While Keynes was right in his forecast for economic growth, argued Fraser, that growth failed to deliver us the promised “Garden of Eden”: it might have satisfied the demand for things we needed, but it also stimulated a potentially insatiable demand for things we wanted – with some of the blame implicitly lying at advertising’s door.

“The trick advertising does is it gets me out of the Garden of Eden and into Westfield Shopping Centre,” he said.

Thomas then stepped in, to extract advertising from the wider sphere of consumerism, reminding the debating chamber that it is “simply an attempt to get our attention, to give us information, to change our minds” – whether that message is ‘Jesus saves’ seen near the local church or ‘30p off sausages’ seen near the local butcher. To say advertising is not good for the soul, therefore, would be to condemn it in all its forms.

Thomas went on to cite examples of advertising’s ability to influence and do ‘good’, from Ogilvy & Mather Brazil’s Real Beauty Sketches campaign for Dove to Maruri Grey’s work with the Ecuador Government on the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, where crowd-sourced funding prevented ecologically sensitive areas of the Amazonian rainforest being destroyed through oil drilling.

Advertising audiences: inadequate and self-important?

In a final counter of the motion, The Guardian’s Zoe Williams put forward the case that advertising manages to achieve the paradoxical goal of making consumers feel inadequate and yet self-important enough to seek salvation through purchasing. “It inspires you to envy,” said Williams, adding in her conclusion: “It makes us miserable”.

And so, the stalls were firmly set out – advertising as a means to share information in a free society, versus advertising as manipulating force. And while they were never going to agree on whether it is good for the soul, they were in definite agreement on its power as a communication tool.

All that was left was the vote, perhaps more than a little influenced by Meredith’s late trump card, which highlighted how the opposing speakers have in part got an ad-funded business model to thank for their very employment. “If you enjoyed their argument, then vote for us [in favour of the motion]” he said. And, by a majority, we did.”

The PPA is a member of The Debating Group, which brings marketers, politicians, journalists and the public together to discuss marketing issues in the House of Commons. For more information visit http://debatinggroup.org.uk/.