ITV Presents: The Agenda with Tom Bradby

Advertisers were condemned as ‘snake oil salesmen’ and advertising described as ‘sewage’ in a controversial special live edition of ITV’s The Agenda, hosted by Tom Bradby, at Ad Week on Tuesday.

A heated debate had the crowds buzzing when former Telegraph writer Peter Oborne and Lord Timothy Bell, chairman of Bell Pottinger, clashed during a session on media, ethics and politics.

The media heavyweights were joined by journalist Mariella Frostrup and Thinkbox Executive Chair Tess Alps in a lively and often aggressive encounter.

Oborne was certainly not afraid to offend his audience. “Advertisers are snake oil salesmen,” he said. “I have no doubt the people in this room fall into this category. They are meretricious and shallow.”

However Lord Bell defended the industry robustly. Asked if advertising had debased society, he responded: “I’m sure it has, but nowhere near as much as he (Oborne) has.

“I’ve never heard so much drivel in all my life. I’ve been told all my life that advertising makes people buy things they don’t want and it’s complete tosh.”

Frostrup said while she could admire advertising, she was becoming tired of being constantly bombarded.

“The sheer barrage of it perhaps makes people suspicious and feel slightly intimidated by it,” she said.

She also criticised the continued objectification of women in advertising. “It’s a source of great sorrow and frustration and anger to me,” she said.

However, Lord Bell said: “I don’t think trust has got anything to do with advertising. There is an issue of trust about the brands but there is no criticism of advertising per se, except by a bunch of pseudo intellectuals.”

Alps stepped in with a more moderate view. “We really as an industry need to stop ourselves stepping over the line,” she said. “I’m afraid trust really is an issue and we need to be very careful if we want to keep an industry that’s effective.”

However, she said many forms of media were heavily dependent on advertising. “Advertising is being used to fund very important media,” said Alps. “At the same time perhaps not enough people know how much serious effort goes into restricting the maverick element.”

The panel discussed whether advertising was and should be used as a political football.

Oborne said: “I think it’s completely legitimate that politicians should comment on how advertising works and what it does. Politicians are there to articulate moral concerns about how society works.

“Advertising is objectionably consumerist, selfish, driven by commercial considerations which conflict with wider society considerations like family and decency. Advertising is about as nakedly libertarian and capitalist as it gets.”

However Alps said: “I think the way Peter describes advertising is very upsetting.”

As if the debate hadn’t been fiery enough, the panel then went on to discuss political advertising itself.

Oborne was heavily critical of what he called ‘vicious attack ads’ against Ed Miliband. “Advertising isn’t just the sewer, it’s the sewage as well,” he said.

Lord Bell hit back again, saying: “It’s got nothing to do with the advertising agenda. Peter should just back off.”

Finally, the panel were asked who they would vote for at the forthcoming election. Lord Bell said he wasn’t allowed to vote as a member of the Lords, but if he could, he would vote Conservative. Frostrup ducked the question saying she hadn’t decided yet, while Bradby also declined to say.

Alps said she was a Labour Party member and supported Miliband as leader, while Oborne said he would vote Conservative but had a lot of sympathy for Miliband. “I’m tempted to vote for him because he does stand for values that I don’t always see in the Conservatives,” he said. 

You can re-watch this controversial session here!