Pressure mounts on ASA to enforce code

The Advertising Standards Authority relies heavily on the press to dish out its punishment. But how effective is it?

A busty woman in a black bra featured in a controversial Christmas poster campaign for a photo company. The caption said: “It took all evening to pull the cracker. The photos took one hour.”

The advertisement sufficiently offended a couple of dozen people for them to contact the watchdog for print advertising, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

The ASA banned the ad and censured the company, Snappy Snaps, in its report published last week. But by the time the ad was banned – the report was published much later – the campaign was over and the posters had already been taken down. So there’s not much left to ban.

This is a familiar situation and one which illustrates the ASA’s apparent lack of bite. But according to the industry, it cannot be helped. How could this country’s 30 million press and poster ads each year be pre-vetted to ensure they are “legal, decent, honest and truthful…with a sense of responsibility to consumers and society” as the ASA demands?

Obviously this situation suits the industry well. As Chris Rendel, managing director of Foote Cone & Belding says: “The ad industry would rather regulate itself than have a whole bunch of regulations imposed upon it. We already have the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (which pre-vets broadcast ads) which is an extremely cautious moral guardian. No self-respecting agency would dream of breaking the code.”

Winston Fletcher, chairman of Delaney Fletcher Bozell, and president of the Advertising Association, says that the overwhelming majority of advertisers and agencies abide by the ASA code every day. “It is ludicrous to say it doesn’t work.”

But there is a less official view. One advertising industry insider says: “Clearly, if you were cynical, you could look at some advertising which flouts the rules and say the advertisers wanted to become notorious and get greater press coverage for a small budget. It has always been a potential trick you can pull off.”

He cites last year’s Saatchi & Saatchi “Beaver Espana” ads for Club 18-30, which were banned after angry parents complained – but not before the holiday company had prompted 30 national press stories.

As for Snappy Snap’s busty “cracker”, Jeremy Prescot, managing director of Kilmartin Baker which created the posters, says there was no intention to offend or fall foul of the ASA. But he adds: “I am not sure that the client was particularly worried about those complaints. What I would suggest is that they were eye-catching posters that people were pleased with.”

The ASA’s power to punish is so limited, it relies heavily on the media to do its dirty work. According to Caroline Crawford, ASA director of communications, the threat of negative publicity should not be underestimated.

Drumond Park, the maker of the adult board game Articulate suffered after it was rapped for black and white cartoon ads which showed cheats being tortured.

The ASA ruled that the ads, created by the Leith Agency, were likely to cause “serious or widespread offence”. Drumond Park marketing director Claire McCool says: “We are hoping to build a brand. Now we have got to go back to the drawing board. We have got to change tack for this year.”

But obviously some brands which deliberately take a risky line – such as Club 18-30 and Benetton – benefit from the free publicity.

If the ASA’s procedures can not control the admittedly small number of ads that offend, there is even less jurisdiction over ads which mislead.

It is generally agreed that the small number of complaints the ASA receives is not indicative of the scope of the problem. Consumers are unlikely to know the rules governing ads. Everyone knows when they are offended or upset by an ad, but it is more difficult to know when you are is being misled.

This month food lobby group the National Food Alliance (NFA) launched a stinging attack on the ASA, accusing it of failing to implement the British Codes of Advertising and Sales Promotion for slimming and diet products.

It is calling for a system of pre-clearance on ads in sensitive sectors such as slimming, more detailed guidance notes, regular reviews and more effective enforcement. It wants the ASA to fine offending publishers and advertisers, and order them to place corrective ads.

Detractors of the ASA criticise it for being fundamentally ineffective because – with the exception of tobacco campaigns – it only acts after an ad has appeared. They say it does not have the money or the manpower to monitor effectively all ads and must rely on complaints from consumers, lobby groups or rival industries.

But Crawford replies: “We also carry out monitoring in areas where we feel the public is most vulnerable, such as cosmetics, slimming, claims of car speed, alcoholic drinks and food and nutrition.”

As the single-issue lobby groups become better organised the ASA is likely to come in for increasing criticism for its reliance on the newspapers as its punishment enforcer.

Pre-vetting will never be a realistic option for all press and poster ads, but for danger areas, such as slimming, the calls of campaigners are becoming increasingly demanding.

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