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How Boris Johnson’s reign reshaped the advertising industry


By Jennifer Faull, Deputy Editor

July 7, 2022 | 7 min read

As Boris Johnson resigns, we revisit the policies introduced under his steerage that have had the biggest impact on the advertising industry.

Boris Johnson policy summary

Boris Johnson and the policies that have reshaped British advertising

While he was in power for less than three years, in that time Johnson oversaw Britain’s departure from the European Union and navigated the country (with questionable efficacy) through a global pandemic. He also gave the green light to the introduction of several new policies that have had significant impact on the advertising industry – many of which the sector will continue to grapple with long after his exit from Number 10.

Clampdown on High Fat Sugar and Salt ads

By far the most controversial policy Johnson inked was the so-called junk food ad ban. In the years preceding his election, some restrictions had been put in place, such as the fizzy drinks tax and tighter rules on advertising to under-16s.

But the PM’s promise to tackle Britain’s obesity crisis came into full force in 2021, following his own health scare when he was hospitalized with coronavirus. He announced a blanket 9pm pre-watershed ban on advertising products deemed to be high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS). The measures include a ban on all paid-for forms of digital marketing and social media, as well as any broadcast media.

It was blasted by the industry, criticized for being too blunt a tool to tackle such a complex issue. It was estimated that TV broadcasters, such as ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky, would lose more than £200m a year in revenue.

Despite vocal protests from advertisers, the ban is currently set to come into force in 2024 (a year after the initial 2023 deadline).

Brexit: inflation and the talent crunch

Boris and his big red bus paved the way for Brexit and with it came a new skills-focused, points-based immigration policy.

While the threshold was tightened for low-skilled workers, the points criteria for skilled workers and the removal of an annual cap on the number of work visas issued was broadly welcomed by industry trade bodies. The Advertising Association, for example, came out in support of the policies, which it said would allow a flow of overseas talent into the sector.

However, in the face of the ’great resignation’, agencies and brands have cited the ramifications of Brexit on their ability to hire. A recent report suggested nearly half (48%) of UK marketers think the ability to hire diverse creative talent has been reduced because of Brexit.

The industry is also at the sharp end of Brexit’s impact on inflation. Globally, the Covid-19 pandemic is the biggest factor, but the UK has the highest inflation rate in the G7 (climbing to 9.1% in May with a further rise expected this year) and economists by-and-large blame the difference on Boris’s Brexit strategy.

For agencies, this means there has been pressure to pay staff more to keep pace with the cost of living while simultaneously facing a cut back in spend from brands (not helped by a looming campaign commissioned by Johnson’s government encouraging CEOs to redirect marketing budgets). IPA president Paul Bainsfair said a hike in agency fees in the coming months is now likely.

His war with ‘biased’ broadcasters

In one of his final acts as prime minister, Johnson announced his intention to sell off Channel 4. He claims the sale is necessary to inject funds that will help it compete against streaming giants including Netflix, Amazon and Disney while protecting it against any decline in the TV advertising spend on which its business model depends.

Despite being publicly owned, the broadcaster doesn’t receive any taxpayer cash, instead investing in content via money raised from advertising. In 2021, its revenues grew by 25% to £1.2bn, creating a £100m surplus.

’If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ has been the resounding message from those opposed to the plan. And there are plenty of critics – including senior leaders from the broadcaster, the wider media industry, advertisers and even his own MPs.

Some have suggested Johnson’s war on Channel 4 is fueled by revenge for its “biased coverage” and incidents like replacing him with a melting ice sculpture during a leadership climate change debate after he failed to attend.

With his exit, there’s now hope that the plan will be axed. However, the future of the BBC is less certain. Johnson has been at loggerheads with the broadcaster over what he believes is an anti-Tory stance. He has threatened decriminalizing non-payment of the license fee and even boycotting Radio 4’s Today program. Under his watch, plans were made to freeze the broadcaster’s funding until 2025 before abolishing the license fee model completely in 2027, which has left serious questions over its financial future.

Clampdown on tech giants

The Online Harms bill has been a thorny issue for Johnson. He inherited the promise to clampdown on social media companies from predecessor Theresa May and it has since grown into a beast of a bill that will irrevocably change how social media companies and other content-focused platforms function in the UK.

A long-awaited draft in May 2021 outlined a raft of measure to tackle everything from child grooming, revenge porn, sale of drugs and weapons, hate speech and cyberflashing to terrorism, disinformation and racist abuse.

It wants to put social media sites and search engines under significant pressure to manage material that is legal but considered harmful by giving media and communications regulator, Ofcom, the ability to dole out fines of up to 10% of revenue if they’re found to violate the new Codes of Practice.

For advertisers, his policy would be a welcome move in the battle for brand safety that has plagued digital advertising efforts for over a decade. But critics have said it would be an infringement on free speech and political expression, give too much power to government and pave the way for greater regulation over journalistic content (which has been exempt from the bill).

Jim Killock, the Open Rights Group executive director, said at the time of its draw-out publication that the continued edits, revisions and additions “should tell everyone that it is a mess and likely to be a bitter disappointment in practice“.

The final bill will be published long after his departure but will have lasting effects for the digital industry and the trust that advertisers place in it.

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