A few months ago a group of distinguished speakers, taking part in the BBC Brains Trust, were asked by a viewer: ‘If the members of the team could envisage looking back a hundred years hence to life in 1958, which aspect of it would they find the most deplorable?’ The panel which was drawn, as usual, from a number of highly intelligent people from different walks of life agreed unanimously that, in their view, advertising was the most regrettable characteristic of the twentieth century. After two World Wars this seems a pretty sweeping condemnation but it is, in a sense an indication of the dislike and cynical distrust of advertising and all that it stands for that exists among the intelligentsia and those the researchers call ‘the opinion-forming groups’. The reasons for this undeserved reputation are too complex to be discussed in the scope of a short article but perhaps they are to be found in the traditional attitude of the nineteenth-century professional classes to whom trade and commerce were vaguely disreputable. There is ample evidence that this attitude still persists in a less vehement form today and there is still an immensely influential body of opinion made up, in the main, of the teaching profession, the clergy and certain of the older Trade Unionists to whom ‘advertising’ is very nearly anathema. The advertising industry itself must take a great deal of the blame for its own inadequate public relations system, for many of the largest advertisers, in exploring increasingly successful means of selling their own products, have almost entirely overlooked the side-effects of this advertising on the more thoughtful – but often misinformed – members of the public. Whether we like it or not we are, in independent television, not only entirely supported by advertising but we are also inextricably involved in the most exposed and controversial of all its manifestations. The strength and impact of television advertising, so important and effective to the advertiser, are at once the means whereby everything that happens on the screen, whether it be in a programme or a commercial, is discussed, criticized and applauded by viewers and non-viewers alike. This subjective emotional quality of television shows itself in curious ways. Nearly all advertisers, and particularly the small ones, even though their campaign may be limited to a short series of 5-second flashes, tend to talk grandiloquently of their ‘programme’. Similarly, a great many viewers associate a particularly irritating commercial not primarily with the advertiser and his product but with the contractor and his programmes.
These then, are some of the reasons for the far stricter control over advertising material exercised by the independent television programme companies than those ever enforced in the Press and other media. These safeguards, the need for which was so wisely foreseen by the originators of the Television Act, have proved on the whole entirely acceptable to advertisers, most of whom recognize the importance of controls which the intimacy and impact of television make necessary.
Since 1 May of this year, the Independent Television Companies Association has operated a centralized script and copy acceptance department through its secretariat at Television House. Before making any filmed commercial, the advertiser, through his agency, is required to send ten copies of the script – sufficient for all contractors and for record purposes – to the Secretary of the ITCA. These are routed to all companies whether the commercial concerned is destined to be shown on all stations or not. The script itself is stamped by the ITCA with a coloured label, black if it appears to be acceptable and red if doubtful, so that each company can, through its own acceptance department, make its own decisions. These are usually passed by telephone back to the ITCA who then communicate, on behalf of all their members, direct with the advertising agency. In the great majority of cases a unanimous decision is reached speedily but from time to time matters arise on which members disagree. The procedure in such cases is that the question is referred to the ITCA Copy Sub-Committee at whose meetings I represent this Company. Decisions made at this committee are reported to the Main Advertisement Committee of the programme contractors, so that we have now built up a formidable list of precedents and ‘case law’. The policy of the television companies in all these matters is based on the application of the Television Act of 1954 as published in the ITA papers of the Standing Consultative Committee and in the Principles for Television Advertising. These rules are, for the reasons I have already explained, more diverse and far-reaching than those to which other media are subject, for television is, after all, the only advertising medium to have control exercised upon it by a statutorily appointed body. Topics on which particular care has to be exercised are as varied as appeals to children which, in the opinion of the Authority, exploit ‘their natural loyalty and credulity’, ‘advertising which is inserted by a body, the objects whereof are wholly, or mainly, political’ or advertising which is directed, however remotely, ‘towards a political end’. It has not always been easy to discern the scope of these limitations from a glance at a script though a good general rule propounded by the ITA is that any advertising which is intended to promote the sale of goods and services is normally acceptable. ‘Opinion advertising’, for which the television medium would be peculiarly effective, is entirely ruled out by the Act as it stands at present.
Filmed commercials are normally required fourteen days before transmission and it is, of course, only at this stage that final clearance of the advertisement can safely be given. For example, the medical profession is rightly concerned about the use of actors in TV commercials who give the impression, from their speech, delivery and setting, of professional medical advice and it is easy to see the level to which much advertising, particularly of patent medicines, would sink were a close control not exercised on presentation. It is for this reason that when we return passed scripts to the advertising agencies we add the words ‘Script story-board accepted subject to approval of film’. This safeguard is also used to allow us if necessary, to reject a film whose nuances and emphasis are not apparent in the original treatment.
Lest it should be thought, however, that constant vigilance has to be maintained to prevent wily advertisers from deceiving the public I should, in all fairness, add that the vast majority of companies who use the television medium are acutely sensitive to the viewers’ reactions and are, indeed, as conscious as we of the damage that a major breach of the rules would cause, not only to their own reputations, but also to the value of the medium.
The growth of the field of advertising covered by television has astounded even its most fervent supporters. This year we, at Associated-Rediffusion, have been carrying up to seven hundred separate commercials a week. We have seen the revenue of independent television as a whole go from £9,500,000 [£267m now, allowing for inflation] in its first year and £25,500,000 [£685m] in its second to a present rate of expenditure of around £1,000,000 [£25m] a week. It has become the most talked-of, provocative and powerful medium ever placed in the hands of the advertiser. It is a measure of the success of the safeguards which the ITA and the programme companies have together set up and the understanding and good-will shown by advertisers and agencies in their operation that the system, with all its complex checks and balances, has remained flexible and imaginative.