The wider regulation debate

Click here to read the cover feature: Watchdog set to enter uncharted territory
Click here to find out why some brands push the boundaries of ad regulation
Click here to Read the views of experts on the regulator’s expanding reach
Click here to learn more about the bodies responsible for ad regulation

A Parliamentary campaign is under way to indicate whether body images in the media have been adjusted

Extended coverage of online activity is not the only recent change to the scope of advertising regulation, nor is it entirely separate from other debates about the adequacy of controls.

Additional rules on marketing to children, for example, were introduced in the latest versions of the standards drawn up by the Committee of Advertising Practice, published on 1 September. The debate does not end there. The Buckingham Report, which in December criticised the lack of safeguards for online advertising, did so as part of its responsibilities to address what the Department for Children, Schools and Families described as the “impact of the commercial world on children’s wellbeing”.

While the DCSF is now defunct, the new Coalition Government has made clear its own concerns about how children are targeted in marketing, which will be addressed by a newly established task force. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg introduced the Government’s policy in a speech in June, promising to crack down on “irresponsible advertising that sexualises children, that makes them anxious about how they look, that encourages them to place too much value on brands”.

ASA chief executive Guy Parker says: “The Government is very serious about this. The Childhood and Families Task Force has the personal support of Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, both of whom have young families and are on the record saying they are worried about the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood.”

Parker admits he has “no idea” whether this will result in wider-ranging regulation, but does say that any changes in the rules, or in the ASA’s remit, must come from an evidence-based approach. “We have looked at a lot of evidence relating to advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar to children and advertising of alcohol. We have not been satisfied, and we are not satisfied at this point, that the evidence is good enough to justify tighter restrictions in those areas,” he points out.

To address what it sees as a knowledge gap in regulations on marketing to children, the Advertising Association has developed a dedicated website at The Children’s Ethical Communications Kit provides a guide to all the rules in the area at one source.

Also bound up in this subject is a separate Parliamentary campaign to introduce traffic light-style labels indicating how heavily media images have been airbrushed. Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson says she and equalities minister Lynne Featherstone set up the Campaign for Body Confidence to “ensure that media literacy and body confidence issues are discussed in schools, make advertising more honest and transparent, and promote body confidence through encouraging people to lead active, healthy lifestyles”. She says the campaign will soon present the ASA with a portfolio of more than 100 scientific studies “demonstrating the harm that can be caused by idealised images in the media”.

The AA’s director of communications, Ian Barber, confirms that retouching of body images is “on the agenda”. But he adds that the industry must ask itself questions about any debate before committing to additional regulation. He asks: “Is it a small issue being blown up into a large one by a small group of people, or is it more widespread than that? Then, more importantly, do we have a chance of making a difference?”

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