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EDITIONS
Monday, 11 February, 2002, 19:05 GMT
Advertising to the rescue?
Health Secretary Alan Milburn unveils an anti-smoking campaign
Labour has spent millions on health promotion
By BBC News Online's Brian Wheeler

Reports that Labour is considering an advertising campaign to ease public fears over the controversial MMR triple vaccine will come as little surprise to the government's critics.

New Labour has used advertising like no previous administration, tripling the annual amount spent.

Last year it spent 192m, more than consumer goods giant Procter and Gamble.

Still from Christmas drink driving TV ad
Are drink driving shock tactics wearing off?
News that much of this was blown in the run up to a general election, prompted the Conservatives to accuse Labour of sneaking party propaganda into government ads.

A welter of campaigns appeared on health, education, anti-smoking and crime prevention, designed, the Tories say, to create the impression of furious government activity.

Labour vigorously denied the claim, saying the campaigns were part of long-planned government initiatives.

But news last week that the government is to strengthen the links between the Cabinet Office and the Central Office of Information (COI), the government agency charged with commissioning ads, has set alarm bells ringing once more.

'Sticky fingers'

The move - the result of a five-yearly review of the COI's activities - has been interpreted by the Conservatives as a wholesale takeover of government advertising by Labour appointee Alastair Campbell.

The fine line between letting people know about important new policies and trumpeting the success of those policies - and the party that created them - is, as far as the opposition is concerned, about to be crossed forever.

In the Commons, shadow cabinet office spokesman Tim Collins said Mr Campbell was about to "get his sticky fingers on taxpayers' money and have direct control over government advertising".

But his concerns were dismissed as a "conspiracy theory" by Cabinet Office minister Chris Leslie.

Mr Leslie said the review simply meant a closer working relationship between different arms of government.

"We must have coherent government, which has a strong corporate strategic management.

"We must make sure that...recruitment exercises and public health campaigns are undertaken as effectively as possible," he said.

Public confidence

The proposed ad campaign on MMR is, arguably, a case in point.

there is a lot of evidence to suggest that advertising used in circumstances like this is actually counter-productive

Roger Hayward, public relations standards' council
The government says it needs to advertise to get important information on the controversial jab across to parents.

And in any case, it argues, advertising is just one part of an ongoing information campaign on MMR, co-ordinated across several departments.

The main focus remains getting reliable information to health care professionals and GPs.

However, critics will say Labour is attempting to shore up a crumbling policy with a glossy ad campaign, conveniently diverting attention away from the one thing that would truly inspire public confidence in the jab - confirmation that Mr Blair's baby son Leo has received it.

There is also concern that advertising may not the most cost-effective medium for spreading public health messages.

Drink-driving success

Advertising is good at selling specific products or policies.

It is not the case that Alastair Campbell is now in control of the COI

Cabinet Office spokesman
But when it comes to altering deep-seated behaviour or entrenched attitudes, the effects can be varied and notoriously difficult to monitor.

The government invariably points to successive drink-driving campaigns as an example of advertising that has worked - and saved countless lives.

But it seems that campaign's shock tactics may have run their course, with drink-driving figures on the rise again for the first time in years.

By contrast, critics say, millions have been spent on anti-drugs ads or anti-teenage smoking campaigns by successive governments with little discernible effect.

'Counter-productive'

Roger Hayward, of the public relations standards council, said a government advertising campaign on MMR looks like "an admission of defeat".

"The public are very canny and they know that anyone who is advertising on an issue as significant as this is really admitting that we cannot convince the journalists, so we are going to over their heads to reach you directly," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"In fact, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that advertising used in circumstances like this is actually counter-productive.

"It worsens the situation rather than improves it."

'Beefed up'

The government has said it wants to sharpen up the way it measures the effectiveness of its advertising, as a result of its COI review.

It has also beefed up the role of COI head - and former drinks industry marketing chief - Carol Fisher.

In her new role as the government's Chief Adviser on Marketing Communications and Information, Ms Fisher will work more closely with Alastair Campbell across the full range of government communication.

But a Cabinet Office spokesman insisted the political neutrality of the COI, as a branch of the civil service, would not be affected.

He also denied the move amounted to Mr Campbell taking over government advertising.

"It is not the case that Alastair Campbell is now in control of the COI.

"Carol Fisher will continue to be answerable to cabinet office ministers," he told BBC News Online.

See also:

25 Apr 01 | Politics
16 Apr 01 | Politics
28 Jun 03 | Liberal Democrats
17 Dec 01 | Politics

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