How the UK Government ignored the most basic law of advertising

The Rt Hon Theresa May, Secretary of State for the Home Office has announced that she wishes to create a ‘hostile environment‘ for illegal migrants to Britain. But early attempts to do this run the risk of alienating those of us who have every right to be here.

In July, the Home Office, led by Ms May, launched an advertising campaign against illegal immigrants to the UK. The chosen message was as follows:

In the UK illegally?
106 arrests last week in your area
Text HOME to 78070 for free advice, and help with travel documents

The media channel used to transmit this message was ‘poster vans‘ which were driven through six London boroughs where, apparently, ‘illegal immigrants are likely to be’.

I was one of many who found this to be a particularly tasteless piece of work and posted to this effect on Twitter and Linked In. But 224 people felt more strongly than me and complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) who, this week, ruled: Go Home van

‘The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told the Home Office to ensure that in future they held adequate substantiation for their advertising claims and that qualifications were presented clearly.’

In relation to the phrase ‘GO HOME’, the ASA weasled as follows:

‘We acknowledged that the phrase “GO HOME” was reminiscent of slogans used in the past to attack immigrants to the UK…. We recognised that the poster, and the phrase “GO HOME” in particular, were likely to be distasteful to some in the context of an ad addressed to illegal immigrants…. However, we concluded that the poster was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence or distress.’

Whatever the ASA have found, who are the people who thought up and created this distasteful piece of work – and who on earth approved it?

Whoever they are, surely they must know that all advertising in the UK must be:

Legal, decent, honest and truthful

The ASA makes no secret of this requirement:

‘Our mission is to ensure that advertising in all media is legal, decent, honest and truthful, to the benefit of consumers, business and society.’

‘Legal, decent, honest and truthful’ is a phrase that was cemented into my mind on the first day of my advertising career. It is the DNA of the UK advertising business.

I will leave it to you to judge whether these posters were ‘decent’ or ‘to the benefit of society’ or not, but there is an even more fundamental aspect of advertising of which the Home Office seems to have been ignorant or ignored.

As ever, David Ogilvy said it for me:

‘Do not address your readers as though they are gathered together in a stadium. When people read your copy, they are alone.’

This is the most basic law of advertising and one that I have stuck to throughout my career. It is, if you like, in my professional DNA.

It means that, however you define your ‘target audience’ in terms of the media you select, the content of your message must be such that you would be comfortable to say it to one person – not some amorphous group.

Whether you are in advertising or marketing or the media or are ever anything to do with the communications business, you must remember that any form of communication between human beings is a one-to-one thing.

I cannot over-emphasise how important this is.

So let’s re-look at this poster van and consider its ‘GO HOME’ message as a transmission from the Home Office to one person – alone.

For example, what would happen if Theresa May were to stand outside an underground station in London and – for this is what this poster did – say to passers by on a one-to-one basis in this multi-racial, multi-cultural, cosmopolitan capital city of ours?

‘Are you in the UK illegally? GO HOME.’

‘Are you in the UK illegally? GO HOME.’

‘Are you in the UK illegally? GO HOME.’

It might be that such an approach would not only provoke the ‘hostile environment’ Theresa May seeks but also a hostile response.

For if she carried on behaving like this and continued to transmit her slogan to each passer by, she might be arrested by the police for breaching the peace or causing an affray – or even, perhaps, a riot.

And then, subject to the extent of the affray and damage caused, she might even find herself sentenced to a spell in prison.

And which Government Department is responsible for police and prison?

Yes, you’ve guessed it. The Home Office.

You couldn’t make it up, could you?

About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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