Ad ‘bans’ sell newspapers, but curbs are the reality

According to the press, various TV ads have been banned. This isn’t strictly true, but the reality would make for duller headlines.

It didn’t take Lord Borrie and the Advertising Standards Authority long to make their presence felt in the television world.

Less than two weeks after taking over responsibility for TV and radio commercials, the ASA and its chairman last week took a Tango ad off the air while they investigated complaints about it. The ad shows a man wrapped inside a carpet filled with oranges, laid on top of some concrete pipes and rolled down a hill. When the pipes hit him, the oranges explode over him.

The ASA said it had received four complaints, including one from relatives of a boy who’d been killed in an accident while playing with concrete pipes. That had occurred before the Tango advertisement was screened, but they feared other children might copy it and come to harm. In a statement e-mailed to the media, it said: “The ASA is investigating concerns that the advertisement may lead to emulation, by children, resulting in harm. Lord Borrie has, after careful consideration, exercised his powers to have it taken off air pending the outcome of the investigation.”

The Press Association said such action “even before a formal decision on whether the ad breached industry rules” was extremely rare. Mediaguardian.co.uk called it unprecedented.

Not so, said some TV insiders, who claim that under the old regulator, the Independent Television Commission, the ad might well have been quietly withdrawn – or given a time restriction – while it was investigated.

What was definitely unprecedented, they claim, was the ASA’s decision to issue a press release about it. Had it not done so, we should never have known the ad had been removed so precipitately. In time, we’d have learned about it from one of the ASA’s weekly bulletins – but not until it had reached a final decision.

Some feel the ASA was grandstanding, seizing the opportunity to show broadcasters and TV advertisers they were under a new regime. That’s flatly denied by the ASA, which says it was simply trying to avoid confusion in an unusual situation. Because the complaint involved danger to children, it felt it had to withdraw the advertisement while it considered it. It insists the ad has not yet been “banned”, merely suspended – but you wouldn’t know that from the media coverage.

“Tango ad banned by watchdog” was the headline in the Manchester Evening News, a view echoed by The Independent, The Daily Telegraph and The Sun. So much for avoiding confusion.

Tango’s producers, Britvic Soft Drinks, swiftly responded. Brand controller Adrian Troy apologised and said the ad would not be screened again, on TV or on its website. The ASA’s final decision – expected in the next two weeks – is to some extent redundant, though it will be intriguing if it decides the advertisement should not be banned after all.

That wasn’t the only so-called advertising “ban” to hit the headlines in the past few days. The Sunday papers were full of leaks about the Health White Paper, from which readers might have concluded that unhealthy foods would not be advertised on TV in future. “Junk food ads banned to fight fat epidemic” was the splash headline in the Observer. Similar headlines appeared in The Sunday Times and The Independent on Sunday.

The stories underneath said something rather different. According to The Sunday Times, Ofcom would be asked to consult with the food industry over voluntary restrictions on advertising “junk” foods before 9pm. A ban would be introduced if the companies didn’t agree new rules by 2007. The Independent said TV companies would have to come up with a new set of rules “or face an outright ban”. Only the Observer insisted that junk food ads would be banned in children’s programmes come what may.

The fact is that editors and sub-editors like the word “banned” and so do ministers and their spin doctors. It sounds as though action is being taken. “Curbed” – which takes up the same amount of headline space – might be more accurate but it sounds less drastic, less like the smack of firm government.

And so to one of the genuine ad bans of the week. The ASA also found time to reprimand the Newspaper Marketing Agency – which is funded by most of the national newspaper groups – over its spoof campaign aimed at encouraging companies to advertise in newspapers. There was a website address for readers to find out more, where the spoof was revealed.

One advertisement – for a fictitious pain reliever for women – prompted a strong complaint from the UK’s regulatory agency for medicines and healthcare products. The ASA decided the ad was “misleading and irresponsible” and so was another in the series and neither should be run again.

Fortunately Marketing Week reported the finding, because none of the newspapers or their websites did.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News

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