Much of the criticism of the proposal to advertise a horse race on the Opera House sails is misplaced. After all, there is no evidence that advertising would degrade the value of the Opera House; indeed, it is possible that regular and colourful displays of prominent brand names on the otherwise bland white sails of the building would enhance, rather than diminish, its tourist appeal.
That horse-racing is characterised by the torture and killing of horses, and gambling, is irrelevant — surely no one would argue that some dead horses, or the lives of the tiny minority of gamblers unable to exercise restraint, are more important than the livelihoods of the tens of thousands of people and a $7 billion industry!
The broader issues, however, demand more attention.
Advertising, despite being crucial to the functioning of both capitalism and democracy, is under siege in this country. Many seek to denigrate and regulate advertising, all the while ignoring the fact it is a foundation of our society. “Free speech”, which is universally agreed to be a good thing no matter where one sits on the ideological spectrum, is simply another term for a more basic idea: advertising.
There are different forms of advertising, to be sure, but all revolve around the core human need to convince others of the merits of one’s position and contribute to the healthy contest that characterises not merely a competitive marketplace, but the marketplace of ideas in a democracy.
Now, the very system it is founded upon is eroding. The shift in power from media producers to media consumers has upended the relationship. The trade-off used to be straightforward: the advertiser would provide quality content, in exchange for the time and attention of the advertised-to. This healthy relationship, which underpinned centuries of economic growth, has been irrevocably altered by the internet. Now, the advertised-to have far greater power to obtain content without paying the price. Worse, the media markets have become so fragmented that reaching large numbers of the advertised-to is no longer possible.
This “free rider” problem of consumer selfishness must be addressed. Capitalism cannot function if consumers refuse to be responsible and pay for products. A two-part strategy can address this.
First, all public spaces should be given over to advertising. If it is good enough to advertise a sport on the Sydney Opera House, there can be no space too “iconic” to have advertising. All public spaces should therefore be used for advertising, so that consumers have little choice but to be exposed to it. Well-respected public spaces such as war memorials and cemeteries would be particularly valuable.
And this principle should be extended to private property too. A tax surcharge should be levied on property owners that refuse to display advertising, including churches and cathedrals. This should also apply to the private property of the human body. An individual taxpayer would pay an advertising levy surcharge if they refused to wear an advertisement prominently displayed while out in public.
However, this alone will be insufficient. Tax incentives should extend to ensuring that all consumers devote attention to advertising. Merely increasing the supply of ads isn’t sufficient — indeed, it will be a waste of money unless people pay attention to them.
Some form of tax surcharge should be imposed on those who refuse to absorb a certain level of advertising a year — say 700 hours a year, or less than two hours a day. It’s a small contribution to make to keep our capitalist democracy flourishing, and exemptions could apply for those who, for whatever reason, are unable to meet the minimum amount through no fault of their own.
Beyond this, Australia can lead the world by making its policies the basis for a new “International Covenant on the Rights of the Advertiser”, a forward-thinking policy initiative for our diplomats to pursue in international fora, and one that would attract strong support from the investment and business communities.