The television ads by the ‘Alliance of Australian Retailers’ depicting battling shop-keepers crying foul over government plans to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes have been revealed as a sham, all part of an exercise cooked up by the tobacco industry in cahoots with a PR firm known as The Civic Group.

The exposé shows again just how grubby the advertising-marketing-PR complex can be. But you wouldn’t know it from the ABC’s paean to the advertising industry, The Gruen Transfer. The popular TV show sells itself as “a show about advertising, how it works, and how it works on us”, except it’s hard to see how it has done anything useful other than provide half an hour of light entertainment.

The subtext of The Gruen Transfer is that advertisements come out of a switched-on, fast-paced industry full of creative people with their fingers on the pulse. And that’s no accident. In developing the program, its creator Andrew Denton, of production company Zapruder’s Other Films, said he wanted to counter the view that people in advertising “have no moral centre”. On the contrary, he maintains, the industry employs “many of our best and brightest”. His show puts them on display in a brilliant apologia for advertising.

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Little wonder then that the advertising agencies have fallen in love with the show, the one that promises to expose their dirty secrets and “defuse” commercial messages. It’s become the “don’t miss” program, and the two agencies chosen to do the weekly “pitch” are the envy of the industry.

Some companies now aim to have their ads featured on The Gruen Transfer as part of their marketing strategy, chasing the 1.5 million viewers on a TV channel where the absence of advertisements switches off the bulldust filter.

There’s regular panelist Todd Sampson, CEO of Leo Burnett. He’s the funky guy with the edgy T-shirts who represents the conscience of the industry. Wringing his hands, he fearlessly bags ads that transgress some hidden ethical boundary. Except that he always pulls his punches; after all, the miscreants are his mates.

When not agonising over the ethics of advertising Todd is helping clients such as Philip Morris to sell more cigarettes, McDonald’s to sell more fast-food to kids and Macquarie Bank to win more influence over our governments. But, hey, he might be advising Big Carbon clients such as Caltex on how to polish its image, but he balances the ledger by backing the “Earth Hour” campaign to stop global warming.

The other regular is Russel Howcroft, MD of George Patterson’s Y&R agency (clients include everything from Big Carbon, property developers, the gambling industry, purveyors of junk food and the Queensland Government Department of Main Roads). Russel is refreshingly honest — he seems to think “ethics” is a county in the east of England. If it sells the product it’s ethical, he reckons, because by promoting mass consumption advertising stops recessions, which are bad.

Todd and Russel not only have fun on the ABC but the Gruen gig turns out to be a nice little earner for their agencies. You can’t buy that sort of profile.

But putting them on the spot is Gruen host, Wil Anderson. He presents as the cynic, ever ready to expose the hypocrisy and dishonesty of an ad with his barbed one-liners. Except that by making us laugh he defuses our outrage. He’s the sort of critic the industry loves, because he knows that, in the end, it’s all just good fun.

The advertising industry recognises it has a PR problem — people who join it joke to their friends about “selling out”. If a bunch of creatives were sitting around brainstorming about how to spruce up the industry’s image, they could not have done better than come up with The Gruen Transfer. Cheers Zapruder.

The ABC does not carry advertising, but it provides the industry with something more precious than access to the airwaves — respectability. So as if to fulfill Denton’s claim, The Gruen Transfer encourages Australia’s young “best and brightest” to devote their lives — not to finding a cancer cure, teaching indigenous kids or campaigning against climate change — but to making clever TV ads for front groups created by the tobacco industry. Now that’s a PR coup.

*Clive Hamilton is professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University based in Canberra.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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