At first sight, the appointment of Chris Graham, the BBC’s top administrator, as head of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) seems a surprising move.
Graham is a dyed-in-the-wool BBC man who joined the corporation as a trainee journalist in the early Seventies and rose to be head of news. He has little discernible experience of the ad industry. He is currently the BBC secretary working closely with Sir John Birt and his duties include responsibility for the internal complaints department.
Nevertheless, Graham is believed to have beaten several ad industry figures to the ASA post, impressing chairman Lord Rogers with his grasp of issues facing the organisation. His broadcasting experience – and his standing within the industry – could prove invaluable in the battles ahead.
When news of his appointment broke last week, Graham said: “Self-regulation remains the best means of ensuring high standards in advertising and I intend to ensure that the system remains effective in a changing and challenging media world.”
These are the right noises for an incoming ASA chairman to be making, but any threat to the principle of self-regulation is unlikely to come from the present Government.
Before the 1997 election, Labour’s then consumer affairs spokesman Nigel Griffiths threatened to make pre-vetting of press and poster ads a legal requirement. He referred to the level of complaints made against certain ads. “If the situation wasn’t better by the time Labour got into power, we wouldn’t hesitate to legislate,” he said. But two years after the election, Culture Secretary Chris Smith believes the ASA works, and wants self-regulation of non-broadcast media to continue for the present.
The real challenge for Graham, when he takes over in April, could be to extend the ASA’s influence into broadcast advertising and take over the role of the Independent Television Commission (ITC).
A single body
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has indicated that, in time, it wants one body to regulate electronic communications, including telephones, TV and the Internet.
Ad industry insiders will be pressing for it to go one step further and create a single self-regulatory body to police all advertising.
John Hooper, director general of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) and former chairman of the Committee on Advertising Practice (CAP) – which draws up the ASA’s codes, says: “There should probably be a single body. We have pressed for the Government to take broadcast advertising out of statutory control.
“We feel the industry is mature enough to self-regulate. Self-regulation has a good track record.”
Outgoing ASA director-general Matti Alderson says: “If you were starting from scratch you would not set up different regulatory bodies. You would have one.”
And she makes no bones about which organisation that should be: “If there is going to be one body, then it should be the ASA.”
TV ads have been tightly regulated by broadcasting laws since commercial TV began in the Fifties. Under the current regime, created by the 1990 Broadcasting Act, they must conform to a code of conduct drawn up by the ITC and all ads are pre-vetted by the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC).
The ASA, which was set up in 1962, monitors non-broadcast advertising, including press, poster, direct mail, cinema ads and now the Internet. The ASA has been dealing with complaints about the Internet since 1995 and last year upheld 30 of the 92 it received. It is now gearing up for the launch of a dedicated online complaints service, although Alderson concedes that the Net is difficult to police effectively and there will always be an element of “buyer beware”.
Unlike the BACC, the ASA polices ads already in the public domain. Its beat includes more than 30 million press ads and 3 million mailings and brochures every year.
Alderson’s case for extending ASA-style self-regulation to broadcasting hinges on the sheer volume of new channels coming on stream.
She says: “In time, there will be a limitation on the controls you can impose on advertising that you can publish. Self-regulation will accelerate and come into its own.
“My understanding is that the number of channels will continue to grow. It will become difficult to police them all in advance of broadcast.”
She also argues, with some justification, that the ASA is better established in the public’s consciousness than its broadcasting counterpart. It already receives dozens of complaints about TV advertising every month, which are passed on to the ITC.
During Alderson’s ten years in charge, the ASA has quietly been making itself bomb-proof.
It has exported the ASA template to 27 countries in the European Union and beyond through the European Advertising Standards committee, which met for the first time in 1991. Part of the motivation for that is to establish self-regulation as a pan-European standard.
Alderson says: “There has been an element of enlightened self-interest, particularly in Eastern Europe. It was important to get into those countries so that when they do accede to the Union we don’t have a weak link in the chain.”
The ASA is recognised by Brussels as the appropriate body to regulate advertising in the UK.
Turf war inevitable
Some believe a turf war, between the ASA, the ITC and telecoms watchdog Oftel over who will get the job of advertising’s super-regulator, is inevitable.
Industry insiders reckon the different organisations have been flexing their muscles recently, to impress the Government.
Ogilvy & Mather managing director Richard Pinder says: “The ASA has got tougher in the past two to three years and that is a good thing. It is for social and self-regulatory reasons – you have a Government which people were inclined to believe was anti-advertising before it came to power. But it is incumbent upon the self-regulator to decide where to draw the line. If it is too hard, the industry will say no. If it is too weak, the Government says it will regulate.
“The ASA has become more aggressive and stronger. The BACC is tougher than it was.”
One recent ASA innovation, the threat of a two-year period of pre-vetting for outdoor advertisers, has given the watchdog more teeth.
The ASA also encourages the industry to disqualify ads which have had complaints upheld against them from receiving awards. Such moves are designed to prevent creative directors from using shock tactics to make the most of limited budgets.
There are some, however, who believe the ASA’s bark is still worse than its bite. The Consumers’ Association has, in the past, criticised the organisation for being too slow and inaccessible. It has also called for the organisation to be given the power to fine advertisers and force them to issue corrective ads, when the public has been misled.
It accepts that its calls for an end to self-regulation have fallen on deaf ears, but it is still calling for consumer-representation within the ASA.
The ASA also came under fire from MPs earlier this year for failing to protect the public from misleading ads for cosmetic surgery.
An all-party select committee called for health warnings on ads for cosmetic operations.
Commenting on the “apparent impotence” of the ASA, the committee’s report says: “…when advertisements against which complaints have been upheld continue to re-appear, we believe the ASA is abandoning its task.”
Alderson says the health committee blamed advertising, when it is the clinics themselves which should be better regulated.
She points to the high levels of compliance to the ASA codes, which is running at 98 per cent for outdoor advertising and 96 per cent for press ads.
Despite successes, the ASA still relies on the co-operation of the media owners to make its codes work. It must be a worrying sign when Britain’s biggest newspaper publisher News International refuses to co-operate with an ASA investigation into one of its own promotions, as happened recently over the The Sun’s “free strawberries for every reader” stunt.
As a statutory body, the BACC comes under more pressure to soften its line, meeting regularly with ISBA and other ad industry bodies to discuss how tough it should be.
BACC director Usdean Mclean believes it has become more liberal in recent years.
He also believes the explosion of new TV channels may lead to the end of compulsory pre-vetting of all ads. He says “It will become increasingly difficult to pre-vet everything. It won’t be impossible, but there will probably be a devolution of clearance and compliance to individual broadcasters.”
He adds: “I don’t think there will be a single body for all ads and different media. I don’t think that is imminent. I think everybody will be looking to enhance their own turf.
“The ITC and BACC have decades of experience in the regulation of broadcast advertising and we do that rather differently from the way the ASA does it. I would certainly not be in favour of our role being subsumed into the ASA.”
He also denies there has been a toughening up to impress the Government, adding: “We are not involved in a beauty contest with the ASA. We are not in competition with it.”
The ITC’s new director of advertising and sponsorship, Stephen Locke, is also unconvinced of the case for a single regulator. He says: “There are huge merits in using the synergy generated by ads and programmes sharing the same regulatory framework, administered through the licensing system.
“I don’t think a move towards a single body is imminent. I am not sure it would be a good thing, anyway. It would be a huge and unwieldy body.”
Earlier this year, Chris Smith ordered an audit of the ITC’s codes in response to the multichannel and digital environment.
It is likely to be the first stage of a sweeping review of broadcasting regulations, which could lead to the creation of a new Ministry of Communications.
It would probably be unrealistic to expect the Government to embrace self-regulation for TV advertising. It is still seen as too dangerous a medium to be left to its own devices.
In those circumstances, the creation of a single advertising regulator would probably lead to more legislation for the non-broadcast sector.
And – rather than extending the ASA empire – Graham could find himself fighting for its survival.