Cause for complaint

Asem Mohammed is a man on a mission. In his mid-20s, Mohammed, who works in accountancy and lives in Hounslow, has spent the past two years monitoring press ads from the cosmetics industry.

He has made more than 50 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the ad industry’s self-regulatory body for non-broadcast campaigns. All of his complaints are directed against private clinics that specialise in cosmetic surgery – those which tend to advertise in the classified sections of glossy magazines.

His motivation is simple: “I started complaining two years ago after a friend at university went for an operation on her nose and was disfigured.

“When I first complained, I said to myself ‘I would only be complaining about half a dozen ads,’ then I realised that the clinics were continuing to use very similar claims in their brochures and ads.

“Initially, I thought the self regulation system was effective. But the problem is that these advertisers are continuing to use very similar claims.”

Mohammed claims to have become so frustrated that he has stopped complaining to the ASA. Nevertheless, he says at least 40 of his complaints have been acted upon.

In the case of at least one advertiser, the Nobel Clinic, the ASA has taken the step of issuing an ad alert asking media owners to speak to the copy advice team concerning an ad for hair loss featuring before and after pictures. But the ad still appeared in a couple of magazines, with the publishers citing production errors.

Mohammed is one of about 10,000 who complain to the ASA each year. Together, they are unhappy with about 8,000 ads. Yet the ASA only upholds about 1,000 complaints, and as few as 500 ads are censured. That leaves some 9,000 complainants who are dissatisfied with up to 7,500 ads each year, with no further means of recourse.

Mohammed is one of the most prolific individual complainants. However, ASA director-general Mattie Alderson says it is the quality not the quantity of complaints that is important. “Complainants that make a large number of complaints are dealt with in the same way as individuals who make one complaint. The fact is that not all of the complaints are justified,” says Alderson, who still welcomes persistent complainers.

The overwhelming majority of complainers – some 90 per cent – register as private individuals who are indignant at what they see as misleading, distasteful or offensive ads. In reality, they may be part of wider letter-writing campaigns, which may be the case with some of the 56 complaints about the cinema ad created by Delaney Fletcher Bozell for the Gun Control Network – an organisation set up to campaign for the banning of handguns following the Dunblane massacre. National media coverage prompted a deluge of complaints to the ASA before the cinema ad had even broken.

“Pressure groups think they can use the ASA for their campaigning, but it is not the number of complaints that’s important,” says ASA spokesman Chris Reed. “We have to exercise discretion and make sure that people have seen the ad in the context in which it was intended.”

Complaints from advertisers account for ten per cent of the total. British Gas Trading is the industry’s most prolific moaner, although it has also been on the receiving end. In the ASA’s August 1998 report, Eastern Electricity, East Midlands Electricity and ScottishPower all had complaints upheld against a British Gas Trading ad that claimed savings of 123 on combined bills for gas and electricity. However, the campaign had finished two months previously.

Even so, British Gas Trading director of marketing and strategy Jon Kinsey is undaunted by this censure: “We have used the ASA on many occasions over the past year to ensure the customer is not fed bum information and doesn’t act on bum information,” he says.

Last year, British Gas Trading made five complaints against its competitors. So far this year the company has made 12 complaints -16 including repeat complaints. “There has been an expansion of sales marketing activity in the rush to get people signed up. A lot of companies that are inexperienced in marketing have been testing the boundaries of creativity with the claims they have been making,” claims Kinsey.

British Gas is working with other utility companies to help the ASA to produce a help note for the sector so that price comparison claims can be made on a like-for-like basis.

The opening up of the utilities sectors to competition has prompted an explosion of complaints. Kinsey says: “This industry is like the telecoms sector a couple of years ago.”

But he denies that the ASA has been used as a battleground: “I don’t think the ASA would do anything about it if it was just a bun fight between 20 companies. I see the ASA as a protector of consumer interests – a body which, on behalf of the customer, makes sure that the claims are responsible and truthful.”

Alderson sees the ASA’s role as conciliatory and educative when it comes to industry competitors. “It would be better if the ASA wasn’t used as a blunt instrument,” she says. “The ASA becomes useful where dialogue has broken down or there is no agreement between the companies.”

As for persistent complainants, the ASA has the option of referring advertisers to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), which can then take legal action. One pressure group which is prolific in its complaints to the ASA – as well as being one of its strongest critics – is the Consumers’ Association (CA). The consumer lobby group claims to have had more than 40 complaints upheld by the ASA over the past three years.

Its attention has focused on financial services and some manufacturers who claim that their products benefit asthma sufferers.

Although the charity supports the principle of self-regulation, it claims that the ASA has problems with certain advertisers that fail to comply with the British Codes on Advertising and Sales Promotion. “We have suggested that fines are a way of stopping advertisers from re-offending,” says Benet Middleton, head of policy research at the CA.

Alderson claims that advertisers simply put any financial punishment down as a business expense.

The CA has also called for the ASA’s performance to be regularly monitored and made subject to independent review. The charity plans to approach consumer affairs minister Dr Kim Howells to discuss the issue of self-regulation.

The CA has strongly criticised the way the body treats complainants, saying it shows a “lack of willingness to encourage complaints”. The ASA will not accept complaints by telephone or e-mail, only by letter. This can deter individual complaints and delay the process of investigating potential breaches of its codes.

The CA criticised the ASA’s own ad campaign “Keeping Tabs on Ads” for failing to inform people of how to make a complaint, although it accepts that the ads now carry contact details.

The charity also says the ASA lacks effective sanctions, made worse by the fact that it makes rulings after ads have been withdrawn. The ASA says that most complaints are dealt with within 30 days.

The ASA certainly stands accused of failing one group of people it was supposedly set up to help, namely members of the public who are distressed by misleading or distasteful ads. The ASA can be hijacked by pressure groups and companies fighting competitive battles against their rivals. They are the ones who have the resources and know-how to reap real benefits of complaining.

Perhaps it is time the body learnt some of the customer-service skills adopted by the advertisers whose campaigns it regulates. Otherwise it will be seen as a vehicle for competing companies to criticise rival ads and pressure groups to pursue their campaigns.

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