So the cat’s out of the bag. After nearly a year, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has finally ruled on viral marketing and decided to extend its CAP remit to cover e-mail marketing messages that are “designed to stimulate significant circulationâ¦ to generate commercial or reputational benefit to the advertiser from the consequential publicity” (MW March 2).
While it’s a brave – but necessary – decision, the big question is whether the ASA has sufficient clout to police its code and clamp down on rogue viral operators. Doubts are already surfacing, not least with the ASA director general Christopher Graham himself recognising that “online media owners cannot play the same gatekeeper role that applies with print and broadcast advertising”. Instead, Graham cites self-regulation as the best way forward. It’s obvious that the ASA needs someone prominent in the viral marketing industry to ensure it does become self-regulatory.
However, with some viral operators already moving offshore to escape ASA regulations, the prospect of self-regulation is as likely as a George Galloway peerage. The problem is that once self-regulation is seen to fail, the Government will have no option but to introduce compulsory legislation and draconian laws across wide swathes of the ad industry, not just digital media. This cannot be allowed to happen.
With the EU Commission already asking what the European Standards Alliance vision for digital media will be, self-regulation should become the lead agenda for all sectors of the ad industry. If not, what is now a little smoke could become a major blaze.
Louis Halpern Chief executive Halpern Cowan