Health Secretary Andrew Lansley provided a valuable clue to the government's thinking on public sector advertising in the summer.
In a speech to the Faculty of Public Health annual conference in July, he said the government would be 'progressively scaling back the amount of taxpayers' money spent on Change4Life ...
while government pump-primed the brand, we will now withdraw the primer'.
Then came the killer quote: 'We have to make Change4Life less a government campaign, more a social movement. Less paid for by government, more backed by business. To date, industry has made "in-kind" contributions. I will now be pressing them to provide actual funding behind the campaign.'
Industry insiders dismissed the idea as a slip by the health secretary. One confided to Marketing at the time: 'He didn't mean to say that, we'll help him out of this hole.' Fast-forward to last week, however, and it is clear that Lansley was in fact ahead of the game.
For buried in the Cabinet Office's business plan, alongside already trailed ideas such as payment by results and use of government channels for COI ads, was a mention of a concept worth exploring - a 'US-style Ad Council'.
The introduction of an initiative of this kind would represent a major step-change in the way in which social marketing campaigns are run and funded. Below is an explanation of how the US Ad Council works (see box).
It is no exaggeration to say that the government's floating of this initiative has sent shockwaves through the marketing and media industries. Many were already fuming that Downing Street had opted to set up a behavioural insight unit without their knowledge, so this development is being seen as another slap in the face.
While sympathetic to the government's aims, senior industry figures are united in saying that it should not, and cannot, make brands invest in campaigns it does not want to fund itself.
Nonetheless, the idea apparently has a powerful backer inside No 10: David Cameron's director of strategy, Steve Hilton, who has lived in the US, is said to be a fan of the Ad Council as he feels it sits well with the 'Big society' strategy.
Ian Twinn, the director of public affairs at ISBA, says that while brands want to do their bit, 'it is unlikely that UK business will want to pick up a "voluntary" tab to fund government messaging across the board'.
Where all this leaves the COI is still unclear. The body's future has been under scrutiny since the announcement in the summer that it would shed 40% of its staff. At present, the Cabinet Office is sticking to the line that it is reviewing the COI's future, but it is clear that it would be scaled back, should an Ad Council be created.
Tim LeFroy, chief executive of the Advertising Association, believes there is still a role for the COI, which is led by former adman Mark Lund. 'I can't see a centralised bureau for what the COI currently does,' argues LeFroy.
He says industry-led initiatives such as Business4Life, Drinkaware and Media Smart provide a more helpful template for involving brands in social marketing than an Ad Council. Yet he is adamant that the 'taxpayer should make a clear contribution to campaigns where there is a clear social imperative'.
'Political rhetoric around government advertising being wasteful has been unhelpful,' adds LeFroy. 'It's time for dialogue and perhaps government asking the industry how we might help.'
Others question the practicalities of the idea. A well-placed insider says the media scene is simply not set up to give free airtime to government campaigns. 'It won't work in the UK. It's not like the US, where you have a completely deregulated market, meaning they can simply run more ads. Asking ITV to run free ads would amount to it having to take space from a paying customer.'
The government aims to produce its conclusion on the Ad Council proposal, and the other changes to the way it handles marketing, in March. Until then, the industry has the chance to make the case to ministers that co-operative working, rather than the imposition of this controversial model, is the better way forward.
Behind the US Ad Council
The Ad Council was established in 1942, initially as a way for Madison Avenue to contribute to the war effort. More than 60 years and hundreds of campaigns later, it has evolved into the leading producer of public-service communications in the US.
It describes itself as a 'private, non-profit organisation that marshals volunteer talent from the advertising and communications industries, the facilities of the media, and the resources of the business and non-profit communities to deliver critical messages to the American public'.
International Marketing Partners founder Allyson Stewart-Allen, a California native who has spent the past 20 years in the UK, says: 'An Ad Council could work in the UK provided the "what's in it for me" is clear to agencies and media-owners.'
She suggests that, as a sweetener, a brand's name could appear on the screen or side of outdoor furniture. Alternatively, agencies and brands willing to contribute might also receive exclusive access to opinion-formers and leaders in the charitable and NGO sector.
'What will take time is migrating something that's historically been fee-earning or revenue-generating for the agencies and media-owners respectively to a philanthropic or CSR activity for these commercial organisations,' concludes Stewart-Allen.