A Question of Censorship?

Time was when pressure groups and single-issue campaigns were suspicious of big-money ‘persuasion technology’ and wary of involvement with professional advertising agencies. Not any more.

This autumn will see radical and hardhitting advertising campaigns by CND, Greenpeace, and War on Want, designed and mounted by major advertising agencies. Yellowhammer, currently running the Government anti-heroin campaign, will be employed by Greenpeace, War on Want is using BMP agency who won awards for their GLC campaign; Creative Sales was chosen by CND from some half a dozen agencies who pitched for its business.

George Galloway, War on Want’s general secretary, is in no doubt that the use of professional agencies to produce effective political advertising is essential ‘if charities are to rid themselves of the image of amateur do-goodism’; an image that is particularly antagonistic to his own organisation’s aim of getting us to see famine not as a natural disaster which one must give alms to alleviate but as a political and economic reality that must be acted upon. War on Want’s campaign film, ‘Bury the debt not the dead’, a two-minute cinema advertisement directed by David Bailey, rejects the all too familiar starvation scenes, and instead dramatizes the money-famine connection through a theatrical sequence of swaddled dead children being dropped into a vast piggy-bank grave. The film (first screened in April of this year) will be seen widely during the autumn. Along with the rest of BMP’s campaign of billboards, press advertisements, and posters by Ralph Steadman, it gives a stark unignorable edge to War on Want’s interpretation of political advertising.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is likewise determined to use advertising this autumn that goes beyond the shock-horror Hiroshima pictures to which we have all become virtually immune. Its brief to the agencies that competed for its work was for a campaign that would persuade the middle ground, the ‘sympathetically unconvinced’, of its anti-Bomb case, and in doing so, put the issue at the centre of the political arena. The successful agency, Creative Sales, have come up with posters that focus on senseless impoverishment – ‘We can’t afford to build it. We could never afford to use it. So why have it?’ – and a cinema advertisement, ‘Britain and the Bomb’, that pushes nuclear war off the stage into unthinkable genocide: instead of showing mushroom clouds and fireballs, the screen goes blank and the human song is replaced by a chilling total silence.

Both War on Want and CND are clearly interested in using the power and market intelligence of advertising to maximum political effect within their own domains. Neither is directly concerned with political advertising per se. And why, given the specificity and urgency of their tasks, should they be? But the issue of what constitutes a political advertisement is not as irrelevant nor as theoretically remote to these campaigns as it might seem. It is no accident, for example, that War on Want’s and CND’s advertising will run in the press, on billboards, and in the cinema but not on TV or radio: in the UK, political advertising is banned from these media.

Clause 9 of the Independent Broadcasting Authority’s code of practice is uncompromising in its intent: ‘No advertisement may be inserted by or on behalf of any body, the objects whereof are wholly or mainly of a political nature, and no advertisement may be directed towards any political end, and no advertisement may have any relation to any industrial dispute. No advertisement may show partially as respects matters of political or industrial controversy or relating to current public policy.’

Now it is difficult to think of an issue more embroiled in present-day political controversy and public policy in this country than the activities of the nuclear industry. How is it, then, that the current British Nuclear Fuels campaign, promoting the benign benefits of nuclear energy and the safety of the Sellafield reprocessing plant, is allowed to appear on TV? By what reasoning is such advertising held to be ‘impartial’ and indeed ‘non-political’?

Greenpeace, currently working with Yellowhammer on a one-minute cinema film designed to open up the nature of the nuclear industry, has already asked these questions in an aggressive and typically confrontational form. Within a few days of Young & Rubicam’s launch of the Sellafield campaign, Greenpeace’s advertising manager Nick Gallie submitted the following TV advertisement to the IBA for clearance: ‘If you had visited Chernobyl on Friday, 25 April, you would have seen a clean, safe nuclear plant. After Saturday, 26 April, if you lived up to 100 miles from Chernobyl you would have been evacuated, or worse. What does a visit to Sellafield really prove?’

The IBA’s immediate response was that the advertisement contravened clause 9 and was therefore unacceptable, and (as Gallie, an ex-agency copywriter with many years experience, had know they would) banned it from TV and radio. Greenpeace asked the IBA to explain the principles whereby its advertisement but not BNFL’s was banned. At the same time Labour MP Frank Cook wrote to the IBA asking them to spell out, in view of their acceptance of Young & Rubicam’s campaign, what the authority meant by ‘political’

The IBA, of course, rejects the charge that there was any discriminating bias involved in its decision. But its defence, which runs in essence as follows, is hardly illuminating: British Nuclear Fuels as a public liability company has a obligation to inform the public about matters which concerns it, Greenpeace as a charity-educational trust has no such duty; further, BNFL’s advertisement, which merely promotes the company and invites people to Sellafield, is manifestly not political, while Greenpeace’s ‘deliberately provocative’ advertisement is.

Greenpeace has no intention of letting the matter rest there. Its forthcoming campaign on nuclear power, like that of CND on weapons and War on Want on famine, will seek to persuade the public that such issues, far from being either naturally given states of affairs or matters of immutable national policy, are deeply political. In addition it is lobbying the group of some 20 Labour MPs active in the Freedom of Information movement to rewrite the IBA code. More specifically, Greenpeace intends to mount a poster campaign which reproduces both its advertisement and BNFL’s and asks why one and not the other?

Part of the answer to their question must surely be that the term ‘political’ – what it means, how it is to be used, and on whose behalf – is itself political.

The difference between the BNFL and Greenpeace advertisements is not, as the IBA would have us believe, that one is political and the other isn’t. The difference is that the Greenpeace advertisement is frankly political whereas the BNFL one is only implicitly so. What one implies and insinuates – that paying a visit to a complex high-technology factory will demonstrate that it is safe and benign – the other explicitly questions. Why should insinuation be less “political” than outright assertion?

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