No ads please – we’re British 

30 November 2003

January 1927 saw the start of the modern age of broadcasting in the United Kingdom. The British Broadcasting Company Limited, a private concern regulated by the Postmaster-General and financed by a private tax on sets bought from its shareholders, the manufacturers of those sets, was replaced on the first of the month by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

This organisation was nationalised as a going concern by the then Postmaster-General, who turned over its management and ownership to a Board of Governors. Thus an institution was born, and in a typical British fudge, the institution was neither state-owned nor private; neither state-controlled nor independent, but an undefined mixture of the two impossible to write down but, well, you know it when you see it.

By the 1930s, radio (the only real means of broadcasting) was something every country was into in a big way, and the BBC produced a model, not easily followed it must be said, that nearly all in Europe followed. Except for the odd little Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, a tiny semi-Germanic, partially Francophonic state in nestling uncomfortably between Belgium, France and the Weimar Republic of Germany.

The threat from Radio Luxembourg, an advertising-driven semi-private broadcaster, was not lost on the BBC. In the 1933 Year-book (as it was described in those far-off, hyphenated days) contains this broadside against ‘Advertising On The Wireless’ as presented by Sir Charles Higham:

I am entirely opposed to sponsored programmes, and although I believe that eventually radio advertising in England [sic] will take its own place amongst media for selling goods, I think it will be in self-defence. If practically every other country takes to using the radio for telling the world the merits of their goods, whilst we remain silent upon ours, we have to take into consideration the idea of foreign competition on a very broad scale. But I do not think that such competition need be anticipated yet.

At the present time, I am opposed to radio advertising from two quite definite points of view. First, from the listener’s, whose reaction to the programme would naturally influence my second, the advertiser’s point of view.

If I buy a wireless set, I pay an annual licence fee to be entertained, not instructed as to what goods I ought to buy. Were a canvasser or a commercial traveller to force his way into my house and thrust his goods upon me, I should consider it an unwarrantable intrusion. But I consider it no worse than that I should be expected, when I switch on my radio receiver to hear the entertainment to which I am entitled, to have to listen to a similar salesmanship.

The obvious argument is, that I have no need to listen. I can switch off. But why should I? What have I bought a radio for? What do I pay a licence fee for? Not to “switch-off” but to “switch-on,” – to whatever form of entertainment appeals to me.

Another small, but nevertheless irritating, detail – I do not wish to hear a programme “by the courtesy of” anyone. I don’t want it given me as a favour when I know very well it is my due.

With the listener holding this point of view, it is hardly to be expected that the advertiser’s verdict will be a favourable one, as every listener is a potential customer.

The advertiser or the advertising agent, who if possible must be still more careful in choosing his media, has neither the guarantee that the sales talk, which follows the “sponsored programme,” will be listened to (it is more than likely that as soon as it begins, the listener will switch off), nor the knowledge that the people who do happen to be listening are the people to whom his product appeals, nor the assurance that even if they are, they are not being antagonised by the method of approach.

As an advertising agent of twenty-five years’ standing, any one of these objections would be sufficient for me to recommend my client to spend his money elsewhere. Advertising success cannot be built on such hit-or-miss methods. Every penny of the advertising appropriation must be directed to the right people, at the right time, in the right way. In the Press, where I spend 95 per cent of my clients’ appropriations, I can achieve all these ends. But “on-the-air” I haven’t the slightest guarantee that I am achieving any of them.

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