Sponsored advertorial - It pays to advertise, but not enough to revive Britain

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House of Commons, 25 March 2013, 6pm

For the motion

Laurence Green, founding partner, 101 London

Luke Owen, student of advertising, London College of Communication

Against the motion

Sam Blackie, Deloitte

Max Lehner, student of advertising, London College of Communication

The UK economy is in a hole. We’ve lost our triple-A credit rating, the Budget deficit is rising and growth remains stagnant – leading many commentators, including the New Statesman’s economics editor, David Blanchflower, to believe that we are in a triple-dip recession. And as the commentators often stress, we need to find a strong and effective cure for our economic woes – and we need to find it fast.

Could advertising hold the key? This might appear to be a tall order. After all, it is a particularly deep hole the Chancellor has dug for us and there is only so much that a few television and display adverts can offer. On closer inspection, however, it would seem this is a question worth asking – particularly when the results from a recent study by Deloitte are taken into account.

The research, conducted on behalf of the Advertising Association, set out to quantify and qualify the economic effects of the £16bn spent on advertising in the UK every year. Using data from 17 countries over a 14-year period, Deloitte was able to demonstrate that, for every £1 spent on advertising, £6 was generated for the economy – something that amounted to a £100bn effect on total GDP, and which led the report authors to write: “We need to think differently about advertising – as an industry, important in its own right, but also as a business activity, and a fundamental driver of UK competitiveness.”

Is this an accurate view or is it the case that the industry has fallen for its own spin? To put it to the test, the New Statesman and the Advertising Association gathered a mix of the UK’s top creative and analytical thinkers, as well as emerging talent from the London College of Communication, for a House of Commons debate: “It pays to advertise but not enough to revive Britain.”

The first person to speak was Laurence Green of the 101 London advertising agency. Arguing for the motion, he opened with a reference to some of the hugely successful advertising campaigns he has worked on, such as the Skoda “It’s a Skoda, honest” and “Cake” adverts; the Cadbury’s drumming gorilla; and the Sony ad that featured coloured balls bouncing down the streets of San Francisco to mark the arrival of its Bravia LCD range. However, while one can’t dispute the value of these advertising campaigns for the companies in question, Green felt they did little to stimulate the economy.

“We didn’t sell a car to anyone who wasn’t already in the market for a car,” he reflected. “And even though Sony had to build a new factory to cope with demand, it was the collapse of the price that was driving market growth – we were simply harvesting a share of that market.”

In Green’s view, advertising supports individual organisations, and those alone, because most companies use advertising to preserve higher pricing structures rather than create demand. Therefore, he said, the role advertising has to play in reviving the British economy is limited: “When faced with a similar tough economic environment, President Roosevelt did not build a brand, he built bridges. I suspect bridges are a better way to build Britain.”

This idea that investing in infrastruc-ture offers a viable way out of our economic mire was not disputed by the next speaker, Sam Blackie of Deloitte. He agreed that it was hugely important to get the country spending.

“There is consensus in the UK and ­Europe about needing to use economic growth and spending to get us out of this mess,” he said. “We need to grow markets to escape our malaise and advertising is fundamental to doing that.”

Blackie referred to advertising as a “Darwinian process that improves products, brings people together, matches buyers with sellers, and creates markets that otherwise wouldn’t exist”. For evidence of what this means in practice, readers should turn to the aforementioned Advertising Pays report, which demonstrates how advertising facilitates competition through price promotion, product differentiation and innovation, which in turn helps new entrants to penetrate markets. Take broadband advertising, which Deloitte estimates is responsible for 36 per cent of take-up in UK households; or the £200m savings on schoolwear that parents benefited from in 2010, “thanks to supermarkets advertising their intense price wars”.

Advertising also enables the digital economy by providing funding for free search activities, social media, instant messaging and most websites, which in turn provide £5bn in value to customers. And let us not forget the social contribution of advertising such as the government campaign “Don’t Advertise Your Stuff to Thieves”, which reduced the cost of crime by £189m.

Indeed, the findings of the Deloitte report are supported by other studies, such as a McKinsey paper, published in March 2012, which concluded that advertising is an economic growth engine that accounts for 15 per cent of GDP growth across the G20 economies; and Leo Burnett’s research into the effect of the Department for Transport’s drink-driving campaigns, which stated that over a 30-year period “this relentless pursuit of potential drink-drivers saved almost 2,000 lives, prevented more than 10,000 serious injuries, and created a value to society of £3bn”.

Nonetheless, doubts were raised about the value of relying on a sector that encourages consumerism in order to help any country recover from a debt crisis. As Luke Owen, a student at the London College of Communication, argued: “How can an industry that encourages people to spend bring us back from this [crisis], when it is this [debt] that got us here to start with?”

Owen also felt that advertising was becoming increasingly irrelevant as “people don’t watch adverts any more”. “The harder advertisers strive to get attention, the more annoying they become,” he said. “Dave Trott [founder of the Gate advertising agency] said 90 per cent of ads are invisible. Ninety per cent is far too high a fail rate for an industry capable of saving an economy.”

Max Lehner, however, wasn’t convin­ced of this argument. Also a student of advertising at the London College of Communication, he said that regardless of how ineffective some may consider ­advertising to be, in the main it still works. He referred to the case of Nike, which, in the early 1990s when everyone was cutting back on advertising spend, did the opposite.

“They did something different to what everyone else was doing. Instead of saving money, they spent even more money on building their brand. Recognition is now 900 per cent higher than when it [the campaign] began.”

But the main focus of this debate was not on how effective advertising may or may not be in terms of brand awareness. It was on whether the advertising industry could provide a much-needed boost to the UK economy. And on that issue, the house was united in favour of the motion.

It is not advertising that is going to revive the economy, it was argued, but better, stronger manufacturing – “We’ve sold our gold reserves, water companies, air-traffic control, Land Rover, Jaguar and Rolls-Royce. When we want new railways we go to Germany; when we want new power stations we go to France,” was one comment. “Our economy is at the mercy of politics” was another, highlighting the proposed merger between BAE Systems and EADS, which failed as following intervention by the German government: “No amount of advertising would have closed that deal.”

Meanwhile another guest blamed the advertising industry for not stepping up to the plate. If an advert can result in a product selling out almost immediately – such as the M&S ad for a chocolate pudding that sold out within 48 hours – then the reason why advertising is “failing to lift us out of recession is that advertisers aren’t good enough”, she said.

The debate closed with Sam Blackie attempting to rebut some of these sensible comments. “The point was made that, if no one has any money, how can they spend it? Well, if you don’t tell people about a product how are they going to buy it?” he retorted.

“We can’t advertise our way out of trouble, but equally we can’t get out of trouble if we don’t advertise.”

Persuasive as he may have been, it was not enough to turn the house, and when it came to the final vote it was overwhelmingly in favour of the motion. Advertising, it would seem, does pay – just not enough to revive our economy.

Sponsored content from Advertising Association. For further details about advertising’s economic impact please go to www.adassoc.org.uk/advertising-pays

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?