Tricky course for the ASA to plot

Chris Graham, plucked from the relative obscurity of the BBC mandarinate, will find his new post as director general of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) calls for a very different set of skills to the ones he is used to exercising.

For this is no longer, if it ever was, a discreet backroom role – requiring an astute but anonymous political manipulator pressing the flesh in the corridors of power – but an increasingly turbulent and public one.

As a self-regulatory body, the ASA has little formal power but is invested with an immense amount of moral authority. To sustain that authority, it must simultaneously satisfy the demands of two very different constituencies: public opinion and the advertising industry. Failure to court the one is likely to result in media excoriation, followed by unwelcome interference from politicians crusading for statutory regulation. But alienating the other also has its dangers – increasing mistrust and truculence on the part of advertisers and their agencies.

Needless to say, this middle path has never been easy to tread. But it has become a lot thornier in recent times as a result of changing mores. The disintegration of social consensus on what constitutes taste makes it much harder to adjudicate on ‘decency’ in advertising. While the near-disappearance of deference has made admen (especially those working on a restricted budget) all the more eager to tackle taboo subjects in the certain knowledge that they will attract endless acreage in the media.

By and large, the ASA has met this challenge admirably. It has, as many in the industry will admit, been more robust in its judgments over the past couple of years and come off well, for example, in a marathon, bruising battle with Nestlé over infant formula (MW February 11).

But it has also proved vulnerable to criticism from politicians. Earlier this year, an all-party select committee condemned the ASA for ‘apparent impotence’ in confronting misleading ads for cosmetic surgery.

This is a charge to which the director general designate should be especially sensitive, because if he fails to rebut it, the ASA will find its future options severely curtailed.

Sooner or later there must be a radical reform of the regulatory system. Historical accident, rather than logic, has dictated the current muddled division between the policing of press, poster and Internet advertising on the one hand, and broadcast ads on the other. In the event of consolidation, which form of regulation is likely to prevail: the consensual self-regulatory system favoured by the ASA; or the more draconian type exercised by the Independent Television Commission?

Matti Alderson, the outgoing ASA director general, makes the shrewd point that heavy pre-vetting of ads – which is an integral part of ITC regulation – will become impracticable as the digital revolution advances. But it is not a foregone conclusion that the ASA model will prevail, despite its successful replication abroad.

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