In the current issue of the trade journal Transfer, our consumer policy experts, Timm Bopp and Robin Arens, have shone a spotlight on advertising regulation from a political perspective. They have analyzed how the debate on advertising and the accompanying consumer protection policy has developed over time.

They have identified three reasons why today’s regulatory situation was unavoidable:

  1. For a long time, advertising and advertising regulation in Germany was mainly perceived as an aspect of competition policy. It is only in the last 30 years that advertising, and thus its regulation, has been considered from the point of view of consumer protection and health policy.
  2. The change in the way of looking at things correlated with a shift in the consumer model of the political actors. Whereas in the past the responsible consumer was the ideal type, today parties and politicians either no longer have a fixed consumer model or one in which consumers must be supported or protected to a much greater extent.
  3. The third aspect is the internationalization of political procedures. This broadened the spectrum of actors and thus the number of procedures has become more overlapping and the arguments more diverse. Not that all procedures are now decided solely at the international level and national politics no longer has any room to manoeuvre. Nevertheless, these fundamental determinations at the international level must be analyzed and also taken into account when monitoring such procedures.

Taken together, this explains why advertising regulation has increasingly become an attractive or even necessary option for political decision-makers in recent years. Perceptions in Federal politics have changed and international requirements have made it indispensable to deal with these measures or to implement them.

The next legislative period

But how do the parties address advertising regulation and consumer protection policy in the current draft programmes for the upcoming Federal elections? In the following, we test the assumptions on the parties’ current proposals.

Apart from the proposal of the Liberals, none of the drafts presented so far has named a concrete consumer model. But even the Liberals describe their model as a realistic one. Although the consumer remains responsible for its decisions, he/she must first be enabled to make a self-determined decision through transparency in the market and more information. For this reason, the Liberals does not advocate advertising bans, but rather further measures (such as a simple, transparent and obligatory animal welfare label) to enable consumers to make supposedly informed decisions.

The Social Democrats, the Greens and the Socialists – the CDU/CSU has not yet presented a program – do not explicitly describe a guiding principle, but consumer protection is repeatedly emphasized. It can be argued that the implicit consumer model here, justifies further regulations that further restrict the companies’ options for action.

In terms of concrete measures to regulate advertising, the SPD names the need to make day-care centers and schools an advertising-free space, while the Greens want to define clear rules for the advertising of food based on the WHO criteria if the advertising is directed at children. The Left has listed an extensive catalogue of demands regarding advertising regulation in its program: Apart from individual aspects (no advertising for tobacco and alcohol, no advertising in schools and the suppression of sexist advertising), the party’s general objective is that product and brand advertising must be reduced in public spaces as a matter of principle.

It turns out that advertising regulation will definitely play a role for the parties in the upcoming Federal election. However, it is only one aspect of a broader consumer protection policy. The emphasis on the need for further measures to strengthen both health and economic consumer protection or at least to bring transparency and further information into the market supports the thesis that the consumer mission statement in politics has fundamentally changed. Consumers need to be protected, or at least informed. The focus of most of the proposed advertising regulations also supports the thesis stated in the article that advertising increasingly refers to arguments from health and consumer protection policy.

Overall, it can be said that the theses put forward in the article are confirmed by current policy. It shows that there has been a fundamental shift in the political coordinates in consumer protection, which is likely to continue in the long run.

What does this mean for public policy makers?

Although the discussion has changed, it has not disappeared. There is still – especially in the Federal policy discussion – no automatism that a consumer protection policy debate necessarily leads to stricter advertising regulation. It is still one of several instruments and so far there have been no hasty advertising bans by politicians. It also shows that companies can use (impending) restrictions as an opportunity to educate, which is reflected in the advertising of various low-fat or low-sugar products, for example. Therefore, it is still important for those responsible in companies to campaign for other political measures to be taken and for advertising restrictions to be taken only as a last resort.

Furthermore, it is already important to create awareness within the company for the internationality of the topic and to create an early warning or monitoring system. Both at the international level (e.g. UN, WHO) and at the European level, product and advertising regulation will continue to be discussed in the future. Although it is usually possible to avert regulations that are too strict with good and professional representation of interests, a political pre-determination has then already been made.