The ASA needs to regain respect from a dauntless media industry

If the gung-ho ad industry doesn’t take more notice of the ASA, a stricter, Labour government may give it a devil it doesn’t know. By Torin Douglas. Torin Douglas is BBC Radio’s media correspondent

Whether or not the Advertising Standards Authority decides that the Tories’ “demon Blair” ad breaks its code, it has a more serious problem on its plate.

It can no longer depend on the unwavering support of the media owners on whom it depends for its credibility. Without that backing, the whole basis of advertising’s self-regulatory system – as an alternative to legal controls – could be undermined.

The ASA’s only sanction – apart from the publicity offenders receive – is its power to ask the media not to carry ads that have been judged to break its code. Indeed, media owners – represented by the advertisement director and the editor – are supposed to act as the first check-point for the self-regulatory system, ensuring that advertisements are legal, decent, honest and truthful.

Yet some media owners, as advertisers in their own right, are now among the most regular offenders to be found in the ASA’s monthly case reports. And when a ruling goes against them, instead of saying “it’s a fair cop” or “we back the ASA, right or wrong”, the media increasingly cry “foul”, thereby damaging the authority of the regulator and the system.

The latest media owner to challenge an ASA ruling is Reader’s Digest. In its latest report, the ASA upheld two complaints against a direct mailshot for one of the company’s publications over claims linking diet to the relief of arthritis.

Digest head of government and consumer affairs Kevin Holland has written to the ASA director general, Matti Alderson, not only questioning its ruling but suggesting that there is a more widespread concern about the ASA’s role. He said some senior industry figures believed the ASA was “playing God” and behaving like “thought police”.

Somehow, the news found its way into a trade magazine, whereupon Alderson fired off a letter to all the 22 advertising and industry bodies that are members of the Code of Advertising Practice committee. In it she said the ASA was anxious to know if there was widespread disquiet in this or any other part of the industry with its adjudications.

Alderson is wise to be concerned. The warning signals should have been spotted earlier in the summer when Mirror Group Newspapers continued to publish advertisements for its sister company, Live TV, even after it had been criticised by the ASA.

The ads featured the wedding day photograph of the Prince and Princess of Wales kissing, but with a sportsman’s head superimposed over that of the Prince. The first one showed Paul Gascoigne and prompted a complaint from the Queen’s press secretary. The ASA upheld it, reminding advertisers that, under the CAP code, references to the royal family weren’t usually allowed in advertisements.

Live TV’s boss, former editor of The Sun Kelvin MacKenzie, immediately ordered another ad to be run in the Daily Mirror, this time featuring the Princess apparently with Will Carling. He made it clear he didn’t believe his creative freedom should be shackled by the ASA.

This time the ASA challenged the ad itself. It said the ad breached the code and went on: “The authority was concerned that the advertisers and the publishers had defied its earlier ruling.”

Mirror Group Newspapers has had no fewer than ten complaints upheld against its own ads in the past 12 months – almost all concerning front-page promotional offers. In July, the ASA severely criticised the promoters for their “inability” to comply with the codes.

But Mirror Group is not alone. The latest ASA report shows News Group Newspapers has had seven complaints upheld in the past year, the latest being for a promotion in The Sun. In this case, unlike Mirror Group, it assured the Authority it would take care similar errors did not occur again. Not before time, you might think.

Then of course there are the notorious poster campaigns that last year prompted an increase of 124 per cent in complaints to the ASA. From Club 18-30’s “Beaver España” and Playboy TV’s “Morgasms”, to the bra firms’ “Hello Boys” and “Who said a woman can’t get pleasure from something soft”, these ads are designed to shock a certain percentage of the passing public.

The ASA has not upheld all the objections, much to the annoyance of the complainants. But in its latest annual report it warned that many parents object to their children seeing such posters: “Advertisers who appear to legitimise, condone or encourage behaviour that parents and society may be trying to discourage raise questions about the industry’s ability to use this medium unfettered. This will be a challenge for the industry in 1996.”

The real challenge, it seems, is for the ASA to establish that it has the support of its own industry. Of course, not everyone is going to agree with every decision it takes but the ASA does require the unswerving backing of the industry – advertisers, agencies and media owners – if it is to function properly.

Given that we may have a Labour government before long (give or take a Tory party poster or two), it is intriguing that the industry has lost all fear of new legal controls over advertising. Intriguing, too, that the current ASA chairman is Lord Rodgers, a former “Gang of Four” member alongside Shirley Williams, whose threat of legislation, as Labour consumer affairs minister in the Seventies, led to the beefing up of the ASA in the first place.

But few in the industry remember those heady days. One agency has worked out that 71 per cent of those now in advertising have only worked under a Conservative government. Perhaps the ASA should remind them of the words of Hilaire Belloc:

“Always keep a-hold of Nurse, for fear of finding something worse.”

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