Digital arena could take shine off ASA’s successes

As the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) readies itself for a review of the two-year probationary period of its co-regulatory contract with Ofcom, it is already signposting its achievements.

In its 2005 annual report, the ASA reveals a rise of 16% in complaints compared with 2004, testimony to “an effective one-stop shop regulator”, it says. Until November 2004, Ofcom managed the regulation of broadcast ads. Then, after 40 years of regulating non-broadcast marketing communications, the ASA became a one-stop shop for all advertising complaints, after Ofcom contracted out broadcast advertising regulation to the ASA.

But the real test for the regulator in the future is far greater than just the Ofcom review. The digital age, bringing with it ever more fragmented media channels, can hardly be making self-regulation easy. While the ASA’s remit includes control over paid-for advertising on the Web, such as banner and pop-up ads, it does not have any jurisdiction over online content. The proliferation of media companies, including mobile phone operators and video-on-demand and internet service providers, which allow consumers to receive television programmes via the internet or handsets without a licence, also undermines the role of self-policing.

But ASA director-general Christopher Graham says he is more than keen to “future proof” self-regulation. “We think of advertising and marketing in a holistic way,” he says. “There is a ready-made, self-regulatory platform that new media can work with. But it is up to the industry players to take the lead and start regulating themselves.”

Marketing Society chief executive, and former ASA Council member, Hugh Burkitt says that new media is difficult to regulate and poses one of the most difficult challenges facing the authority at the present time. “So far, the regulator’s definition of internet advertising has been fairly narrow, with only the relatively trivial end of advertising being regulated,” he says. Like Graham, Burkitt also thinks the online industry needs to work out its own regulation now or face government intervention at a later stage.

Meanwhile, the ASA has been busy updating and tightening its own advertising codes “in keeping with the times”. In the past 12 months, it has set new rules and guidance for alcohol advertising; planning has also begun for a similar review of food advertising; and it launched its first advertising campaign in a decade to raise awareness of its role.

The pressure shows no sign of letting up. The ASA has been asked this week by the Gambling Commission to draft a new gambling code, which will go out to public consultation this summer. It is expected to relax the rules governing the advertising of casinos. Internet gaming sites, bingo halls, betting services, gaming machines and football pools will also be covered by the new regulations.

So as its probation period as the one-stop advertising regulator comes to an end, the ASA is having to pursue future advertising freedoms with renewed energy. No doubt the industry will continue to champion its self-regulation status as an alternative to any kind of heavy-handed legislative intervention. But the ASA’s task as a self-regulator will continue to be colossal. Its immediate challenge is to prove to Ofcom that it is able to cope with the changing media landscape.

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