In the run-up to the 2010 general election, George Osborne took to the pages of the Daily Telegraph to explain that a Tory government would be tough in pursuit of cuts, promising to ‘cap public sector fat-cat pensions, slash spending on government advertising and private sector consultants, and root out waste in every area of the public sector’.1 When he duly became chancellor of the exchequer, he announced that ‘savings could come from the £1 billion spent on government advertising and the £580 million budget for office furniture’.2
That bit about government advertising seemed quite a good idea. In the later days of New Labour, it felt as though every advert break on a commercial radio station contained at least one government-funded message, advising us, for example, not to jump the barriers at level crossings, or reminding us to check that our smoke alarms were working.
This surely was a fine place to make cuts. Not only could it save a few quid of public spending, but it was also a statement of intent: the government might still think of us as infants, but at least they wouldn’t make it quite so obvious, using our money to patronise us on the airwaves. Anyway, advertising was so twentieth century; we were all into nudge theory these days.
Where Osborne’s figure of a billion pounds came from wasn’t entirely clear. David Cameron had his own statistics, claiming that ‘last year the Central Office of Information [COI], for the Government, spent more than £500 million’.3 But, of course, he and Osborne had an axe to grind. Better perhaps to find some independent assessment:
Figures collated by Nielsen, an organisation that monitors advertising budgets, shows the government spent £145m in 2006, rising to £160m in 2007 and £193m in 2008. In 1997, when Labour first came to power, spending was just £45m.4
The trend had continued, so that Marketing magazine could reveal that in 2009 the government had ‘become the biggest spender on advertising in the country for the first time,’ with a spend of just under £208 million.5 And what was this spent on? The COI explained: ‘During 2008/09, there were a number of important campaigns tackling issues like obesity, smoking, road safety and climate change.’6
The COI’s own accounts suggested that Cameron’s estimate was actually pretty close to the mark, revealing that that the government had spent ‘£532 million in the year to the end of March 2010’, a rise from £344 million in 2005.7 (These figures went beyond media advertising, as measured by Nielsen and Marketing, to include ‘communications’ more generally, including junk mail and data mining.)
After the 2010 election, the new Tory-led government took to its task with enthusiasm. By October, Francis Maude, the cabinet office minister, was proudly boasting that in just three months £27 million had been saved on advertising. Of course, if Osborne’s figure of £1 billion had been accurate, then this represented a cut of just 10.8 per cent. But it was at least a start. And meanwhile the COI was being told ‘to cut its staff numbers by 40 per cent, with the loss of 287 jobs,’8 leaving just a skeleton staff of 430.
These announcements scared the life out of independent radio in particular. The big radio broadcasters like Global (owner of Heart, Galaxy and LBC) and Bauer (Kiss and Magic) relied heavily on the government, with between 15 and 20 per cent of their advertising revenue coming from the COI; the equivalent figure for commercial television was only 3 per cent. Global expected that its receipts from government would fall from £18 million in 2009 to £4 million in 2010.9
Further cuts followed, and at the end of 2011 the COI, founded in 1946 as the peacetime continuation of the Ministry of Information, was finally abolished.
And yet anyone listening to commercial radio today will still find that it’s a rare ad break that doesn’t feature a government message, perhaps urging the self-employed to submit their tax returns, telling employers not to ‘ignore the workplace pension’, or suggesting that we don’t use the word ‘password’ as our computer password. And when it’s not central government, it’s Transport for London warning drivers not to exceed the speed limit – even on supposedly national stations like TalkSport and LBC. Even in the age of so-called austerity, they’re still using our money to nag us.
So what happened? Well, it appears that following those early cuts, spending began to creep up again. As the coalition came towards its end, Whitehall reverted to type and normal service was resumed:
Figures compiled by Nielsen for the Evening Standard show the Government splashed out £90 million on ads in the 11 months to November 2014 against £64 million in the 12 months of 2013 and almost double the nadir of 2011. The Coalition’s £12.6 million expenditure in November was the highest monthly amount since March 2010.10
The radio stations could relax again. Secure with their taxpayer-funded subsidies, they could continue railing against the waste of taxpayers’ money and the licence fee.
There’s another, arguably more serious, problem with government advertising on the radio, though. It’s rubbish. There’s no sign of the intelligence and creativity that marks out the best television and cinema ads. A recent addition to the revolving repertoire of adverts is a very odd piece that admonishes us not to become drug smugglers. (Apparently it’s illegal – who knew?) But if David Mitchell as Pablo the Drug Mule Dog didn’t work, it’s hard to believe that this one will. And hard not to conclude that there are still some cuts worth making.
1 Daily Telegraph 25 March 2010
2 Express 24 May 2010
3 Daily Telegraph 9 January 2010
4 Sunday Times 10 January 2010
5 Daily Telegraph 30 March 2010
6 Sun 14 January 2010
7 Daily Telegraph 28 July 2010
8 Financial Times 3 August 2010
9 Times 7 August 2010
10 Evening Standard 14 January 2015