Trawling through the television listings is one of the last places we at Mediolana were expecting to find a compelling item about corporate social responsibility (‘CSR’), but this week turned out to be an historic one for UK TV advertising: a commercial depicting someone smoking was broadcast, nearly fifty years since the last such placement. As might be expected in 2014, this was not owing to the sudden abrogation of the relevant European directive on tobacco publicity, but merely the purchasing of airtime to plug the VIP brand of electronic cigarettes (‘e-cigarettes’): as of October 2014, e-cigarette television advertisements have been permitted under UK law, albeit with certain provisos.
Naturally, this development has engendered controversy. Some have posited that electronic cigarettes are little more than a proxy for tobacco products; others have argued that it is counterproductive for governments to prohibit the advertising of e-cigarettes, which seem to be used as a smoking cessation aid as much as anything else.
However, this debate – while valuable – serves to highlight what is – at least for this company – a much bigger issue: how many categories of products and services today would really pass a basic CSR test, and should it be legal to push them on commercial television? For decades, the automobile industry has used seductive shots of everything from empty country roads to supermodels to sell something – the petrol-powered car – that is detrimental to human health and which contributes alarmingly to global pollution levels. Alcohol corporations get to advertise their carcinogenic wares on UK television with the kind of feeble health notices that can only be the product of self-regulation; in fact, the default position in this and many other jurisdictions is to permit all kinds of highly deleterious stuff to be embedded in the public consciousness through relentless media promotion without so much as a second thought.
Over a century after the advent of modern advertising, far too many companies and societies are failing to ask themselves the basic question: what are our products and services for? There is a world beyond basic commercial imperatives that has barely been explored in the present model of disposable consumption – a model which is content to dwell on the minutiae while obscuring the bigger, vital picture.