Agenda item

Ethical and Low Carbon Advertising

To consider the report of the Director.


The Director referred to a report in relation to a Motion presented at the April meeting of Council by Councillor Sparling regarding ethical and low carbon advertising, which was referred to this Scrutiny Committee. Councillor Sparling was in attendance Under Standing Order 45 to explain the Motion.


The report considered the Motion, the Council’s existing advertising arrangements, explored the impact and potential options of ethical advertising moving forward, and acknowledged the importance of considering planning aspects of the Ethical Advertising Framework through a report back to the September meeting of Strategic Scrutiny Committee, before a further report to the Executive and Council.


The Director confirmed that Exeter City Council runs a successful advertising network throughout Exeter.  An Ethical and Advertising Framework was adopted in 2019, which set out the remit that officers could operate by. In preparation for this meeting, officers revised the Ethical Advertising Framework which was circulated with the report. The expansion of digital advertising and reduction of its reliance on printed material was notable in the intervening period. The existing Framework had provided guidance from the British Code of Advertising, covering promotion of some food and drink which might lead to poor or latent healthy eating behaviours, as well as specific categories that the Council does not accept advertising relating to tobacco, alcohol products, and goods or services that were likely to offend, as well as adverts for personal injury claims or loans.


The advertising media currently included in the Framework consisted of:-


·           Digital advertising screens

·           High Street banners

·           City Centre poster sites

·           Exeter Citizen (Quarterly newspaper which is distributed to every residential and commercial property within the Exeter boundary)

·           Vehicle fleet advertising

·           Website


In terms of the Digital Advertising screens, Exeter City Council and Devon County Council have had a joint contract with Clear Channel, since 2012, providing advertising throughout the city. Devon County Council’s contract covers sites across Devon. The City Council receives an annual percentage of revenue from the contract along with the provision of new or replacement bus shelters across the city. The Director stated he would make a copy of the contract available to Members if they wished to view it.


Councillor Sparling welcomed the opportunity to provide more detail and wished to raise a number of points to put the Motion in context. The Motion had included a number of recommendations, not least that a review of any outstanding concession agreements should be mindful of the impending climate emergency.  She wished to impress on Members that banning the advertising of certain products was not the same as banning the products themselves. Recent evidence showed that the introduction of a ban in advertising on certain food products, for example, does not automatically lead to a drop in revenue with companies continuing to advertise food and drink, albeit in a revised format. She also suggested that carbon intensive consumption moved the Council further away from its Net Zero ambitions.


Implementing new practices and policies could be daunting for local authorities, but Councillor Sparling asked the City Council to continue its pioneering approach in many areas and in this case support the climate commitment. She also referred to a legal opinion from AdFree Cities seeking to restrict advertising relating to high carbon products and was able to share the link. It was suggested that despite some concern around the loss of income, there was no data or evidence to support that standpoint. A precedence for an Ethical Advertising Policy had already been set by a number of local authorities across the country including Cambridgeshire County Council, Basingstoke and Deane District Council and Coventry City Council, and discussed by Bristol City Council. She referred to comparative data on digital signage and anecdotally a double sided digital bus stop board uses up to four times the energy of an average home, whilst a large digital bill board can use about 11 times the energy of the same. She considered that digital signage should not be seen as preferable or necessary, or any such promotion of goods and services that detrimentally impact the climate as well as the healthy harm to the residents in Exeter, when effort was being made to reduce the Council’s carbon usage and meet the corporate objective of Net Zero for this Council.  In conclusion, she urged the Strategic Scrutiny Committee to ensure that the Ethical Advertising Framework would be robust and aligned to the Council’s objectives.


Members made the following comments:-


·           that in the case of Clear Channel whether there was any evidence that their advertising does not comply with the City Councils or Devon County Council’s own ethical standards.

·           whether there were specific examples of what were deemed to be unacceptable in terms of product promotion, particularly in relation to food or carbon specific products or services, and in the example given of the multiple levels of energy used by bill boards and bus shelters, it should be noted there were far fewer of those than residential homes. This just amplified the need for a reduction in carbon within residential homes and for Government and local authorities to help with that.

·           that Councillor Sparling should be invited to respond to comments and questions on the Motion at the September meeting.

·           a Spotlight Review may be useful to look at the various issues in more detail.


The Director responded to some of those comments in the following terms:-


·           an analysis on the budget impact of the proposals from the Motion would be made against the existing Framework from 2019, and the advertising contracts at that time,

·           a detailed breakdown of the digital screens that the City Council control and use of energy from digital advertising versus printed versions would be made. The digital screens in Exeter were small, low energy, and the screens were turned off during the night,

·           he had asked his colleague, the Business Development and Brand Lead to consider how the ethical approach to advertising and reduction in band width had affected local businesses in Exeter. He would ask him to reflect on the Exeter’s local advertising environment. The only national advertising had been on a digital screen in the Guildhall Shopping Centre as part of an existing contract with a fast food chain which had now ended.

·           the current Ethical Framework was already robust, but there was the opportunity to consider a reduction of advertising relating to higher carbon activity. An analysis of balancing the practicalities of supporting the local economy would be made.

·           there was an operational cost to the Council to prevent some advertising, but an adjustment in that revenue in the budget was made at the beginning of the year.

·           the recommendations in the Motion were in abeyance whilst the matter had been referred to Strategic Scrutiny for consideration,

·           discounts were offered for some advertising packages depending on scale and demand,

·           the Framework was first debated in 2019 and the move away from print to digital marketing has been a definitive direction taken by the Council and to achieve specific income targets.


The Chair referred to the challenges of limiting the promotion of products and services that contribute to climate change, with consideration for the resource and practicality of requesting a Net zero assessment for every advertiser. She also suggested that an increased focus on the negative impact of human behaviour change should be acknowledged. She noted the reference made by Councillor Sparling in relation to greenwashing (green claims in advertising).


The Director invited the Business Development and Brand Lead to circulate the existing Ethical Framework document and highlight the changes, which related to the exclusion of lotteries, apart from the new Exeter Community Lottery, and a reference to alcohol served at events in the Greater Exeter area.  The status of vaping as a tobacco product would also be clarified. Members would be invited to submit their comments on the document, as well as consideration of the practicalities and impact of the proposals made in the Motion. The comments would be collated and reported along with matters relating to planning policy.


The Director Corporate Services proposed that further consideration of the recommendations be deferred to the next meeting of this Committee in September to allow the annotated Ethical Advertising Framework document to be circulated to Members to submit their comments and revisions on the document to the Director.


Strategic Scrutiny Committee supported the deferral of the report to the next meeting in September.

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