ITC lays down the law to stop racy car ads breaking the limit

To stand out in a crowded market, car ads have been infringing established guidelines. But the ITC wants to apply the brakes. By Torin Douglas. Torin Douglas is BBC Radio’s media correspondent.

The timing was not coincidental. This week the Independent Television Commission issued a forceful warning to car advertisers, TV companies and the body which vets commercials, the Broadcasting Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC), to clean up their acts. Coming four days after the start of the August car rush the ITC’s words will not be lost on car makers expecting a record year.

In its two most recent monthly reports car advertising has prompted almost 500 complaints – testimony, perhaps, to the growing competition among car firms and their determination to make an impact among the increasing clutter of TV car advertising.

Now the ITC has actually banned two commercials and given a warning about a third, after complaints that they encouraged aggressive and irresponsible driving and promoted rapid acceleration. In a lengthy statement, it has urged all car advertisers to stick to its guidelines and ensure all driving in advertisements complies with the Highway Code.

The complaints have come from the top. The Department of Transport, a local authority road safety unit, and 41 viewers all complained about a commercial for the Volkswagen Passat, which shows a test driver dressed in a crash helmet speeding round a circuit laid out like a public road. Hazards, such as a child running out from behind an ice-cream van, were portrayed by crash dummies. The ITC said though the off-road setting was made clear, the ad suggested the car could safely be pushed to its limits. It ordered the commercial to be withdrawn, along with one for the Ford Fiesta.

This commercial didn’t feature irresponsible driving – it didn’t feature any driving at all. It simply showed a baby ageing into an elderly man in ten seconds. The ITC’s objection was that the ad was making the point that the Fiesta 1.4 does 0 to 60 in 10.4 seconds. ITC policy has long held that TV ads for cars should not be based on speed, power or acceleration claims.

Then there was the ad for the Nissan Almera, which parodied The Sweeney, showing the car swerving – with the sound of rapid acceleration – through a fruit and vegetable market. Part of the joke was that the driving was much more sedate than in the series, but the ITC said, despite this, such treatment should be avoided in the future.

Its report says: “The ITC warned the BACC that humour and parody could not be allowed to undermine the spirit of the guidelines.”

An ad for the VW Polo prompted complaints from 144 viewers, who objected to its use of newsreel-style scenes of people curling up or crouching to protect themselves from danger. The commercial was intended to reassure viewers that small cars can offer good accident protection. But the complainants objected that it used disturbing material and some said their children had been frightened.

The ITC instructed the BACC to restrict the ad to post-9pm transmission and reminded it of guidance it had given two years ago when a Sun Life ad used similar images: “While viewers often accept emotionally disturbing material in ads for charities or public health or safety issues, they are generally not as tolerant” of its use for commercial causes, says the report.

Similar concern was prompted last month by another Polo ad, in which a woman feels faint after seeing a poster showing its “surprisingly low” price. The 31 viewers who objected said it was insensitive to use such footage to sell a commercial product. In this case, the ITC did not uphold the complaints, but gave guidance.

It took a tougher line with two other car commercials that month.

One, for the Citroë Saxo, attracted 241 complaints alone. Viewers objected to the image of a car on a production line apparently being possessed by evil spirits, its driver turning into a devil. Once again, the ITC disagreed with the BACC, which had approved two different versions, one for showing before 7.30pm (though not around programmes aimed at younger children). The BACC thought this version was less frightening because the devil’s face was green and looked like a mask. The ITC said it did not think this difference would reduce the risk of children being frightened.

Nor was it impressed by the Rover 600 hostage ad, showing what 134 complainants regarded as a hostage exchange in a mountainous region of Asia. Rover maintained it was meant to be a diplomatic exchange of prisoners, quite different from civilian hostages, but withdrew the commercial after media coverage of objections from a real hostage’s family.

The Commission urged advertisers “not to underestimate the potential for causing offence when images reminiscent of real-life tragedies are used in advertisements for commercial goods and services”.

The ITC has given a clear warning that it believes car advertisers are pushing their luck – particularly on driving standards – and it thinks it knows why: “Car commercials tend to be relatively expensive and advertisers are particularly likely to contest regulatory decisions and claim the benefit of interpretive doubt once an investment has been made. Given the highly competitive nature of the sector, these pressures – if unchecked by intervention – could easily lead to a wholesale drift in standards.”

The ITC has urged car firms, the BACC and TV companies not to give the benefit of the doubt at copy clearance stage for commercials that might damage the credibility of its guidelines. This, it warns with a touch of menace, is “in their own interests”.

In other words, don’t blame us if we decide to ban your very expensive commercial for breaking the rules.

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