In November, the Evening Standard‘s City Hall Reporter Katharine Barney (now sadly culled) penned a short piece on a speech by Boris Johnson at the Royal Opera House. It appeared at first glance that this speech was something to celebrate – he was lauding the achievements of Visit London in attracting increased tourism to London despite the recession. Johnson claimed that by spending £2m, he had produced £50m. This sounds like a very welcome conversion to the cause of active, city-government led promotion of tourism on the part of the Mayor: after all, amongst his first acts in the job had been to slash around £6.5m from the promotional budget. But one sentence in Barney’s article stood out:
In a speech at the Royal Opera House, Mr Johnson praised his “Only in London” campaign, which included helping to pay for adverts for Ryanair and easyJet in foreign press.
The Mayor’s campaign helping to pay for budget airlines’ adverts? Really? Aren’t there supposed to be EU state aid rules about these sort of things?
Of course, it rings true because Johnson has form in this field. Transport for London poster sites carry free adverts for BA flights to New York as part of a supposedly reciprocal deal with the Big Apple’s transport authorities.
Intrigued by whether the Standard had got it right, and if bits of the GLA precept from my council tax bill were lubricating the marketing budgets of a couple of airlines, I fired off an FOI request to City Hall, who referred it over to the London Development Agency. Firstly, I asked whether the Standard quote above and its paraphrase of the Mayor represented accurate reportage. No, said the LDA, they would not be
accepting that the passages you quote are accurate reportage.
Now, there appears to be a reasonable basis for this. EasyJet are not involved. But Ryanair very much is. And yes, GLA money is indeed helping to pay for adverts which, like the one at the top of this post, explicitly and exclusively promote Michael O’Leary‘s airline as a means of getting to London.
Ryanair’s partnership with Visit London’s ‘Only in London’ campaign involved a 50:50 sharing of the costs of joint London-Ryanair adverts across a wide range of print, broadcast and electronic media in five European countries: France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. In other words, a commercial organisation was able to obtain advertising at half the going rate thanks to London taxpayers raising the other half. And this wasn’t a low-key campaign. In Germany, for example, adverts were twice run during May 2009 in the Dortmund regional paper WAZ, which claims a circulation in excess of 1.05 million. In Italy, adverts appeared three times in the national Corriere della Sera, which shifts 679,000 copies per day. All these adverts will have carried slogans promoting hilariously cheap Ryanair flights to London as included in the example above.
Similarly, the online campaign was sizeable, particularly in Spain. Here a range of high-traffic sites (including MSM and Yahoo) were expected to yield almost 75 million impressions for the Visit London/Ryanair advert. Although, that should really be a Ryanair/Visit London advert, given that the message below appeared on the rotating banner advert before one for Visit London.
Is any of this wrong? Legally, probably not. The LDA was at pains to point out to me that it approached a wide range of transport providers and that Ryanair’s 50:50 cost split offer was the best they got. It also told me, in response to a direct question, that neither the Mayor nor his advisers were directly involved in selecting the partners for this campaign. But what of the moral dimension in this? I think the ground is shakier here.
There are two points, the first less controversial to the second. Firstly, is it right that taxpayer’s money goes towards the promotion of a commercial organisation operating in a free and competitive market? Highly questionable. This is, like it or not, an endorsement of Ryanair by Visit London, a body heavily funded by the LDA. Whilst it runs at arms length, Visit London is for tourism purposes the face of London’s city government abroad. As well as benefiting from the reduced rate advertising, Ryanair is also piggy-backing on any goodwill or prestige that London has as a tourism destination – and there is no shortage of evidence to suggest that the city ranks very highly in that respect. Regardless of the company in question, this is a very odd use of taxpayer’s money.
Secondly, there is the nature of Ryanair itself. I have no expectation that our union-bashing Mayor would have any qualms about associating himself with the firm’s abysmal treatment of its staff. But he should care about the consumer – and Ryanair’s dismissive attitude to its passengers, particularly when things go wrong, is well-document and almost legendary. (Personal interest declaration: I became convinced Ryanair were a load of vile sharks when they demanded up-front payment of a surcharge for assisting my disabled grandmother from the plane in a wheelchair on arrival at Stansted) Will any such treatment received by tourists who take this advert’s advice not become associated in their minds with London as well – it was, after all, the city’s tourism board who sent them to Ryanair.
I don’t want to get into the question of whether budget airlines are environmentally sustainable – that too soon descends into the realms of elitism and accusations thereof – but the fact also remains that as well as exclusively promoting a particular company, the adverts promote a particular form of travel, one which has a negative side environmentally, to say the least. This would be fine if they were for in use in, say, New York. Similarly, I concede that its an acceptable assumption that visitors from Italy and Spain will fly. But travellers from the three other countries targeted have a genuine choice in how to get to London – and that probably ought to be promoted. I’m aware, from personal experience that right now is probably not the greatest time to be blowing the trumpet of cross-channel rail travel, but in normal circumstances, travel time and fares from much of France, the Netherlands and Germany are comparable with budget airlines. Cases in point include Deutsche Bahn’s London-Spezial fares which cover Germany-London travel from €49, or the rail-sea-rail Dutch Flier service which starts at £29 (see what I’ve done there? I’ve gone and given them free advertising. Whoops. Ah well, no public money involved).
I think there’s real questions to be asked about this sort of deal between the public and commercial sectors. I’m perfectly happy to believe that Johnson’s hands are personally clean in this, but it is public money being spent questionably on his watch. And considering he made it the subject of a public speech, he seems happy to will the ends – but what is his stance on the means? It may be the case that the previous Mayoral administration engaged in similar deals – in which case in my opinion, they were wrong to do so. But Boris Johnson’s interesting relationship with the airline industry is questionable, especially given the contradictions between the anti-3rd Heathrow runway stance, the Boris Island proposals and the approval of increased flights from London City. He has, on occasion, seen fit to personally promote the commercial interests of individual airlines. Some of a cynical disposition might see the ‘Only in London’ campaign as the institutionalisation of just such a stance.
On which note, a happy new year to readers and a resolution to try to blog a bit more often in 2010.