Four years ago, liqueur brand Baileys signed a £1m deal to sponsor the US hit comedy Sex And The City on Channel Four.
It was Baileys's first broadcast sponsorship in the UK and the agreement was described as an ideal way to add "flirtation, sensuality, mischief and bare-faced cheek to the brand".
How things have changed. Today, brand owner Diageo's media agency Carat is adamant that if this particular sponsorship opportunity came its way now it would recommend that the brand should turn it down flat.
"Diageo has made it crystal clear its brands must not be associated with anything that could possibly damage a product's reputation and, looking back, Sex And The City featured too many scenes of irresponsible drinking. The sponsorship did have a positive effect on sales, but on moral grounds we would not recommend it today," insists Carat's communication planning director Dino Ioannou.
Ioannou, who turned down an opportunity for a client to sponsor C4's Desperate Housewives for similar ethical reasons after seeing the script, is one of a growing number of agency executives questioning advertising's role in society.
Advertising is increasingly being blamed for everything from smoking and obesity to binge drinking and rises in gambling addiction. Consequently, pressure is growing on the industry to demonstrate that it is acting responsibly and is not purely the bad influence some vociferous consumer pressure groups claim.
It would be wrong, however, to assume that only the creative agencies are in the firing line.
For media agencies, and to a certain extent media owners, the issue hinges on the placement of the messages, as much as it does on the messages themselves: to update and paraphrase 60s guru Marshall McLuhan, where you say something and to whom you say it can define what you say – and first two areas are very much the province of media agencies.
As Reebok and Pot Noodle have both found recently, airtime in a slot where too many children might be watching could cause a serious consumer backlash. Booking poster sites for an edgy drinks ad, which are close to schools might cause similar problems. Thus, as media agencies are no longer mere buyers of time and space and continue to rise up the marketing hierarchy, to the point where many play a key role in the overall setting of a client's strategy, they will find themselves in positions of enormous power and, also, responsibility.
In this environment, media agencies, armed with in-depth consumer insight data, have become more confident about questioning their clients' advertising strategies. They can tell brands how a campaign is being perceived by the target audience and the effect this reaction is having on the brand and on sales.
"We are so close to the consumer these days and know how he or she behaves, thinks and how they consume different media. We know how people will react to any brand communication and will pick up on the concerns they have about particular brands," says Ioannou.
Total Media is another company not afraid to make a stand on moral grounds, even if it means turning down new business. One decision which sticks in the mind of managing director Guy Sellers was taken in 1996, following the horrific massacre of 16 children and their teacher at a primary school in the small Scottish town of Dunblane. During the public outcry that followed, Total was approached by a lobby group that wanted to advertise the case for not restricting gun ownership.
"In this instance, one executive argued for working with the lobby group and another argued against. We had to balance the protection of free speech against the horror of what happened, and in the end taking this bit of business just didn't feel right," Sellers recalls.
When it comes to working with specific clients, there will always be moral choices to be made and most bosses will respect an individual's decision not to be involved on a particular account for ethical reasons.
PHD examines the corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy of any potential client before agreeing to pitch. One of its clients is The Guardian , which produces an annual document called the Social, Ethical and Environmental Audit that assesses whether the business operates in the spirit of the Scott Trust, which owns Guardian Newspapers.
"We are all human beings with principles and in advertising everyone will be asked to work with brands they like and dislike. It is therefore important we are aware of the social responsibilities of the companies we work with, and if any of our staff have a problem with a particular client we must respect that," says PHD business director Howard Nead.
There does appear to be a desire within the advertising business for media and creative agencies to pull together with clients to ensure the content they produce and how they communicate their brand messages does not add to society's ills. Yet the debate about exactly how far advertising should rein in its current practices and what the role of the modern-day media agency should be remains heated.
Those who fiercely defend advertising's position argue it does not manipulate people, and advertisers do not force consumers to buy products that might be harmful to them. Even on the contentious issue of smoking, there are still many in the industry who feel it was wrong for the Government to ban the advertising of a product that is legally on sale.
ZenithOptimedia's non-executive chairman Simon Marquis chaired a panel on the topic of social responsibility at Media Week 's Media 360 conference in April and was surprised by the passionate reactions from people on both sides of the argument.
"Ultimately, the question that has to be answered is whether it is our job to wave a moral finger at clients, although if you have a good long-term relationship with an advertiser nothing should be out of bounds," says Marquis.
"Some agencies said they wanted nothing to do with smoking, but what will be next?
Refusing to work on accounts for petrol-guzzling cars? If an agency takes the moral high ground on everything it could find itself sitting there with no business whatsoever."
The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (Isba) is concerned about the growing threat of Government intervention to restrict food and drink advertising, which politicians have identified as one way to tackle public health issues.
Isba has responded by arguing that brand competition supported by advertising is vital to a vibrant economy and any proposals to restrict consumer information must be evidence based.
The society is in constant contact with the UK Food and Drink Federation, which has made no secret of its keenness to retain a system of self regulation when it comes to the advertising of food.
Andrew Brown, director general at the Advertising Association, is frustrated by constant attacks on the industry by various pressure groups and feels the blame being placed on the business is unfair.
"People really misunderstand how advertising works. What they're inclined to say is ‘advertising puts up sales' and they think advertising increases overall markets. It does not. The per capita consumption of confectionery in this country has not changed in 20 years, but everyone is much fatter," he says.
Nevertheless, there are many people within the advertising industry who feel the trade would get more respect if it put up its hands in some instances and worked with consumer groups to help tackle issues such as obesity or binge drinking.
"We have the creative resources to defend our position and to assist with problem areas.
Advertising is not totally to blame, but it is possible for brands to convey a more positive message. Look at how supermarkets improved their image by moving sweets away from the checkout," says Robbie McIntosh, director of strategy and business development at News Group Newspapers. "I am not calling on media agencies to be the moral conscience of their clients, but everyone should lobby for change against the things we feel are bad and put our house in order on matters we can help with."
Diana Verde Nieto, director of integrated marketing company Clownfish, says media agencies should provide strategic guidance to clients on why they need to be socially responsible.
This means being aware of negative issues affecting consumer behaviour before the client is.
"Responsible businesses are more attractive to investors and consumers, so advising clients and recommending how they can communicate their brand values more effectively is a key role for media agencies these days. "All sides need to think of the impact an advertising campaign is likely to have on a brand's reputation in the short and long term," she says.
There is evidence advertisers are listening to their media agencies. Drinks companies have come under attack in recent years for using advertising to link alcohol with sexual prowess, for example, as well as for encouraging binge drinking.
In response, Allied Domecq, which owns brands such as Tia Lusso and Malibu, works closely with its global agency Publicis Worldwide to ensure its advertising is ratified by the drinks group's own Independent Advertising Review Board.
This board consists of four Allied Domecq executives and six external experts, who meet four times a year to discuss the marketing strategy for each brand. Members have the power to veto or change any planned above the line advertising or promotional activity and the results of each meeting are put on the company's website.
The board has persuaded Allied Domecq not to allow any of its brands to be involved in motorsport sponsorship, such as the recent deal between Diageo's Johnnie Walker brand and the McLaren Formula One team, because of concerns the company might be criticised for associating drinking with driving.
Ultimately, all advertising must make provisions for social responsibility under the Advertising Standards Authority's (ASA) various CAP codes.
However, the difficulty advertisers and their agencies face is getting the balance right between providing accurate information and presenting a product in its best light.
Rafe Offer, a former global marketing director for brands in the Disney, Coke and Diageo empires who now works as an independent marketing consultant, says marketers need to take social issues seriously but they must also not be too quick to bow to criticism.
"When I was at Coke, there were on-going arguments about how caffeine affects people and the jury is still out on that one. Ultimately, when it comes to food and drink, this debate is all about moderation. No product advertised will harm you if you use it sensibly, while every product will hurt you if you over-used," he says.
"Companies can be too sensitive to objections and stop advertising a product because they get only a handful of complaints, but these protests might be the work of a competitor hiding behind a pressure group."
Media and creative agencies representing global brands that come under criticism need to work extremely closely together to ensure any advertising campaign reflects a brand's CSR strategy and is perceived as credible.
OMD and Leo Burnett manage the McDonald's account. Despite the fast-food chain's menu changes in recent years and more of an emphasis on salad and healthy eating in its advertising, the brand is still tarred with the fast-food brush that many consumer groups blame for rising child obesity rates.
"There has been a move within society for people to look for easy targets to blame but usually their criticisms are not based on reality.
A client such as McDonald's recognises it is a stakeholder in both the problem and the solution of child obesity, and this is reflected in its advertising, but ultimately it is the parents who are responsible for their child's well-being," says Leo Burnett group CEO Bruce Haines.
When Starcom was Heinz's media agency it realised the difficulties the brand faced launching products aimed at children. Business director Will Phipps remembers the £3.5m integrated campaign to launch Heinz's frozen pizza brand Bite Me aimed at teenagers. The campaign was created with media owner Viacom and ads appeared on Viacom channels such as MTV and Nickelodeon.
"If you are targeting kids, you have to decide whether to advertise around schools but then parents won't be happy. It's a tough balance; you want to reach as many people in your target market as possible, but at what point do you overstep the mark by chasing the consumer and end up acting irresponsibly?"
Phipps adds: "Increasingly, clients want us to be frank with them if we have concerns about what the response of the media or consumer groups might be to their advertising."
And what about the role of media owners in the debate over CSR? Should they refuse to carry advertising from certain brands?
John McGeough, group sales director at GCapMedia, the new £700m group formed in May by the merger of Capital Radio and GWR, says the secret is to work hand-in-hand with advertisers to ensure content of commercials meets all the various ASA codes and will not offend the audience.
"Most of us approved the ban on tobacco advertising, but we need industry agreement on what else is good and bad. The list of products which could be stopped from being advertised if some people had their way is endless – burgers, sweets, cars, even ads for budget airlines – so we must be sensible as these discussions can end up having a real impact on everyone's business," he says.
Ultimately, the big decisions and the consequences of those decisions, lie with the clients.
But advertising and media can play its part in doing the right thing by recognising the areas of its responsibility and acting accordingly.
The pressure to cut or regulate advertising for certain categories of product isn't going to go away, but behaviour by agencies can help them mitigate it.
Definition Corporate Social Responsibility
A company is being socially responsible if it can achieve commercial success in a way that honours ethical values and respects people's communities and the natural environment.
Essentially, it is about how a business takes into account the economic, social and environmental impacts in the way it operates –maximising the benefits and minimising the downsides. (source: Corporate Edge/UK Government)
Some of the biggest issues
Smoking: Smoking is the principal avoidable cause of death in the UK, killing more than 120,000 people every year. Since 14 February, 2003, tobacco advertising on billboards and in the press has been banned under the Tobacco Advertising and Promotions Act 2002.
Obesity: Government figures show that between 1995 and 2003 obesity levels among children aged two to 10 rose from 9.9% to 13.2%. Latest estimates suggest a quarter of men and a fifth of women in the UK are obese and adult rates have tripled since 1982. The Food and Drink Federation has pledged to work with the Government and Ofcom to tighten the self-regulatory codes on advertising to avoid legislation. Overall advertising spend (period: Apr 04-05)*Soft drinks (excluding water or health drinks): £61,298,290 Confectionery: £120,109,475 Snacks: £140,322,731 Chain restaurants: £87,071,975, up 3% on last year
Gambling: Tight restrictions on gambling advertising are actually being lifted under the terms of the Gambling Act 2005. It means licensed casinos and betting shops can promote their services more widely, although creative content will have to meet strict codes being devised by the ASA and regulatory body the Gambling Commission. Overall advertising spend (period: Apr 04-05)* A: Including Camelot: £79,583,099, up 22%on last year B: Excluding Camelot: £57,342,321, up 36%on last year
Motoring: Car advertising is big business, but it is also controversial, as consumers react against vehicles that are seen to encourage speeding and cause pollution. The ASA's CAP Codes contain specific rules for motoring advertisers, including avoiding portraying anything which might encourage anti-social behaviour.Overall advertising spend (period: Apr 04-05)* Cars: £693,925,169, up 2%on last year *
Nielsen Media Research
Resist the temptation to simplify issues
By Andrew Wanliss-Orlebar, CSR strategist at branding consultancy Corporate Edge
The advertising industry is not making progress on the whole issue of social responsibility because it tries to simplify the problem.
This debate is not just about whether media agencies should stand up to clients or turn down work from irresponsible brands, because this is not an attractive business proposition to anyone.
The arguments have to be phrased differently if we are to see action and the reality is evolution in this area is being led by the advertisers rather than by the media or creative agencies.
Around 85% of FTSE 100 companies now produce CSR reports, which confirms that a revolution on the client side is well underway.
Perhaps the advertising industry has been slow to react to this trend because it does not face the same pressures on CSR as its clients? The two sides have in effect been operating in separate worlds because CSR is such a big part of corporate life these days.
Research reveals that around 90% (source:Mori) of consumers want more information on the CSR strategists of the companies they interact with and 75% (source: Globescan) claim to factor a brand's CSR record into their buying decision.
This tells us there is a clear business case for being socially responsible so the advertising industry should not be tackling this subject from a moral perspective but should see the business opportunities from being experts in this whole area.
Those who say agencies should make a stand and not work with certain global brands whose CSR record is suspect are assuming that only the big boys are the bad guys.
Media agencies need to advise all their clients so advertisers get their message right, while ensuring consumers do not feel they are being "green-washed"by companies claiming to be angelic.
This article was first published on Media Week