Is self-policing out of control?

Many of the sacred cows around which the British way of life revolves are now afflicted by BSE. The UK advertising community is no exception to this contagion.

Take self-regulation and the Advertising Standards Authority. Self-imposed standards are all very well, as long as everybody plays the game. Increasingly, they do not – which is making a mockery of the CAP code and those who attempt to enforce it. Inevitably, moral watchdogs face a dilemma. If they are too soft, they stand accused of being a fig-leaf for the interests they ostensibly regulate. If they are too hard, those they condemn cry foul and whip up a frenzy of indignation to discredit what they dislike. Getting the balance right is difficult at the best of times. And this is not the best of times for the ASA.

Keeping abreast of changing standards of public morality – the “honest and decent” principles the code enshrines – has become invidious. Today, there is no universally accepted framework on which to peg these standards, unlike the deferential society of yesteryear. What’s more, the ASA, or rather the CAP code it polices, faces a baffling battery of new challenges – such as the Internet – with which it is ill-equipped to deal.

Whether this should encourage cynical advertisers on the hunt for cheap publicity to declare open season on the ASA is another matter. Flouting the rules may be tempting, but is it wise? Though the kind of administration that hatches a “demon Blair” poster campaign – itself of questionable public taste – is unlikely to be troubled by calls for reform, what if the next one, headed by the demon in question, takes a very different view? Drawing attention to the ASA’s apparent impotence is the surest way to guarantee that it does. Worse, the statutory body that may well emerge as the ASA’s successor would probably satisfy no one, least of all the media owners who are doing so much to exploit its present weakness.

Turning to another of the shortcomings of self-regulation, for the second year running an unnamed agency has found itself over-traded with TV contractors. In the past, this practice, effectively a form of deception to gain greater discounts from the TV companies, would have passed unnoticed. After all, the TV companies were not immune to the mirror-image version of the self-same practice. But since the unfortunate over-dealing crisis at Yorkshire, which cost its chief executive Clive Leach his job, things have had to change. Over-dealing on the TV side has been remarkably quiescent. Not only that, with ad revenue under pressure from satellite, cable and potentially Channel 5, ITV now has every interest in ensuring that the other side plays a fairer game. Or should have.

Torin Douglas, page 17; media analysis, page 14

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