A few days ago Advertising Standards Authority director-general Chris Graham was on the Today programme publicly bemoaning the wretched quality of internet regulation.
The background to this ostensibly strange cri de coeur from one of its chief regulators was the soaring number of complaints about online advertising. Last year, they climbed 33 per cent – enabling online to claim the dubious honour of being the third most criticised medium after television and the national press – ahead of that traditional pet hate, direct mail. It would be a surprise if this trend were in any way to diminish during 2007.
Graham’s unease about the situation is well founded. From the point of view of regulatory enforcement, the internet resembles nothing so much as the Wild West. When it comes to law and order, somehow it’s always the responsibility of the sheriff in the next county.
Frustratingly for the ASA, its own writ does not run very far. Yes, it has responsibility for ensuring that paid-for advertising, whether display, search, email or virals, complies with the CAP self-regulatory code that binds other media; which might at first sight seem a pretty comprehensive range of powers. But it is the chinks in the panoply that we should concentrate upon. These, after all, are what can make internet marketing communications so controversial. Oddly, anything appearing on online social networks and (even more bizarrely) company websites (outside explicit promotions) counts as editorial content and is therefore beyond the ASA’s remit.
The Wild West revisited
Of course, it is precisely this anarchic, final frontier flavour which so attracts certain brands and their agencies. Like feckless ’Forty-Niners, they think they can’t fail to strike gold.
You can see their point. Wherever you look in the sphere of traditional media, the dead hand of regulation, manipulated by political and societal pressures, is gradually choking off the more conventional creative outlet.
But brands need to be very careful when exploiting new media; it is not a cost-free ride. A good case in point has been Nestlé’s artful attempt to sidestep the spirit of soon-to-be-implemented CAP and Ofcom regulations with its ice-lolly brand Fab, which is co-owned by Richmond Food.
The brand developed an integrated campaign to celebrate its 40th birthday, featuring ads on GMTV, iVillage and MSN which urged parents – and their children – to visit myfabland.com, a specially created site. Once there, in the so-called editorial environment, children could participate in games and enter a competition to design a Fab bedroom.
What’s wrong with that, you may ask? The companies have simply used a clever integrated campaign to drive traffic to their website, where the kids can play a few innocent games.
But plenty, within and without the industry, would retort: “Not so innocent.” And suggest that this is pester power by another route. The trouble is, once there is a public backlash against this sort of thing, the whole industry becomes tarnished, not simply the participating brands.
Brandhouse planning director Warwick Cairns eloquently made the same point in last week’s magazine, while commenting on another controversial example of this budding website genre. Mattel’s Barbie Girl online social network has been accused (by behavioural experts among others) of encouraging premature sexualisation among young girls.
Noting our increasing tendency to blame social problems on anyone else but ourselves – and pass the responsibility onto corporate and governmental agencies – he said: “Mattel and other children’s brands have to be careful they don’t get blamed for encouraging all sorts of social and health problems that are (in reality) caused by inactivity and less interaction with other people.”
Precisely. We could also cite Second Life, a virtual reality site which has been attracting major brands like a magnet, but recently became mired in a ‘grooming’ controversy, resulting from inadequate regulation.
The internet does indeed offer remarkable marketing opportunities for those creative enough to exploit them. But when any child over about four can access a commercial site, the idea of all that site’s content being labelled “editorial” is frankly ludicrous.
The sooner this loophole is closed the better: for the sake of the industry, for brands; and indeed for the regulators themselves – who will otherwise lose credibility.
The alternative is a government-inspired crackdown, that will have all the subtlety of a policeman’s truncheon.