Consumers may not play ball with new ad watchdog

One woman’s crusade for tougher TV advertising rules could scupper Ofcom’s plans for a self-regulatory system

As advertisers, agencies and television companies lock horns over the laissez-faire terms of the Carlton-Granada merger, it’s good to see they can agree on something.

Rarely has there been such an outpouring of applause as there was last Monday, when Ofcom announced a consultation on whether to delegate the control of TV and radio advertising to a new self-regulatory system. The chorus of welcomes was rivalled only by that for the unopposed election of Michael Howard as leader of the Conservatives.

After years of statutory regulation by the Independent Television Commission, the Radio Authority and their predecessors, Ofcom is proposing that a new self-regulatory body for broadcast advertising should be set up. It has suggested the watchdog come “under the banner” of the Advertising Standards Authority, the regulator for non-broadcast advertising, which is funded by the ad industry. Ofcom would retain backstop legal powers over the new system, as the Office of Fair Trading does over press, poster and cinema advertising.

Ofcom’s e-mail announcing the move prompted a flurry of others, all welcoming the launch consultation. Hailing the new system as a “one-stop shop for advertising complaints”, ASA chairman Lord Borrie QC said the proposals offered clear benefits for the public: “At present, consumers must negotiate a regulatory maze just to submit a complaint about misleading or offensive advertising. Complaints about TV ads go to one regulator, radio ads another and cinema ads a third. And as boundaries between technologies blur, confusion about ‘who does what’ will only increase.”

Two minutes later, another e-mail arrived, this time from the Commercial Radio Companies Association. By lunchtime there’d been further endorsements from the Advertising Association (AA), ITV and – intriguingly, given that its members will foot the bill – the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers.

In fact, their responses were hardly surprising, since all have been represented on the AA taskforce that has been hammering out the details of the scheme for the best part of a year.

The AA website sets out full details of the scheme, including the formal timescale: “February 2004 – Ofcom expects to make a decision on whether to contract out.” From last week’s response, and the bandwagon that is rolling, I think we can guess what that decision will be.

Or can we? One voice was raised in opposition last week – the doughty Debra Shipley MP, who described it as “a huge step in the wrong direction”. Ms Shipley’s one-woman crusade to toughen the rules on advertising to children now has the support of a hundred MPs and many consumer organisations. This week she introduced a ten-minute rule bill seeking to ban so-called “junk food” commercials aimed at children – or, to be specific, ads for food and drink containing high levels of salt, sugar and fat that target the under-fives.

Her campaign to ban food advertising aimed at children has the support of nearly 90 organisations including the National Consumer Council, the Women’s Institute, the Food Commission lobby group and the National Union of Teachers. Whether Ms Shipley can persuade them to join her in opposing the new self- regulatory TV regime remains to be seen.

She fears that handing control of the codes and the complaints process to an organisation funded by the ad industry will weaken the restrictions on advertising. There was also some concern – misplaced as it turns out – that ads would no longer be pre-vetted. In fact, the Broadcasting Advertising Clearance Centre and Radio Advertising Clearance Centre will continue their work as before.

But not everyone on the consumer side is against the scheme. The Food Commission told last week it believed the ASA had actually been tougher than the ITC towards food advertisers, citing its rejection last year of a claim by Tetley that tea was good for the heart. The claim had already been cleared for television, though it was subsequently rejected by the ITC too.

That raises the question as to whether Tetley will be as keen as its trade body ISBA to hand over control of its TV advertising to the ASA. Particularly when it must pay for the privilege.

Under the proposals, advertisers will have to pay a levy of 0.1 per cent of their TV and radio advertising budgets to fund the two new broadcast divisions of the ASA. The proposed complaints adjudication body, ASA (Broadcast), and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice, which would administer the codes, are together expected to cost between &£3.5m and &£4m a year – all paid for directly by advertisers.

Presumably, somewhere along the line, that sum is being saved by Ofcom, which will not have to employ staff to do the same job. But why should advertisers be willing to foot the bill for the new system, when they didn’t have to pay for the old one?

ISBA director-general Malcolm Earnshaw says the key issue is to maintain consumer confidence in advertising: “Consumers are often confused about which regulator they should contact to address complaints about advertising. As media convergence continues to blur the line between one medium and another, this confusion would only increase and consumer confidence in advertising would likely decrease.”

We know what the ad industry thinks. The ball is now in the consumer groups’ court.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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