The ASA spreads its net wider

In revising its code of practice, the ASA has taken on responsibility for electronic media.

SBHD: In revising its code of practice, the ASA has taken on responsibility for electronic media.

Most commentators have been too worried about violence and pornography on the Internet to concern themselves with the few commercials on new media. But last week, the Advertising Standards Authority took responsibility for them into its own hands by including electronic media in the long-overdue revision of its code.

From now on the cold words “legal, decent, honest and truthful” will hang over everything from computer and video games to CD-ROMs and electronic newspapers. But does the ASA really know what it is taking on?

For the moment, the answer is simple. “The ASA regulates everything that doesn’t come over the airwaves,” says a spokesman. That includes not only newspaper, magazine and poster advertising, but also, somewhat strangely, cinema and video.

However, the new code only applies to traditional forms of advertising. It does not include product placement, nor has it ever covered traditional sponsorship – the two areas that most closely resemble the likely pattern of truly interactive advertising. Whether a more sophisticated regulatory framework will grow up alongside the electronic media remains to be seen.

Agencies already involved in producing some form of new media advertising welcome the move.

Microtime Media is just one of the companies that has pressed for “light-handed, enabling legislation”, where the onus is on the practitioners to abide by the spirit rather than the letter of a code.

“We’re not going to represent brands in computer games because we’re aware they’re a children’s media,” says Microtime managing director Daniel Bobroff. He feels it would be dangerous to regulate the nascent industry too closely.

“If we start to cap investment through advertising we will be implicitly asking either the government or consumer to fund the development of new technology, which would be wrong,” says Bobroff.

In one of Microtime’s projects, Biker Mice from Mars, the diminutive heroes never eat conventional rodent food such as cheese – they eat only Snickers. But Bobroff says that the association, which is an integral part of the game, is treated responsibly and declared on the game’s packaging. It is entirely different from a clandestine piece of product placement.

It is possible that the ASA’s loose-fitting rules is all new media industry can take at the moment.

According to the ASA’s own definition of “non-broadcast media”, this should also encompass The Internet.

Certainly, the Independent Television Commission disclaims responsibility for the Net’s output because it “only regulates any service that requires an ITC licence”. But this still leaves the question of who will finally be given charge of cross-border services, such as the Net, which do not broadcast information.

At present, it is a grey area which the potential advertising regulators, including the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC), are circling somewhat nervously.

The ITC suggested it was a decision for the Department of National Heritage.

The future of new media regulation is the subject of on-going debate by a working group set up by the Advertising Association.

In the meantime, consumers are going to have to trust advertisers’ well-known instincts for being legal, decent, honest and truthful.

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