ASA defies its many critics

The ASA is celebrating its first anniversary as a one-stop shop for those wishing to complain about television, radio and non-broadcast ads, and despite being denounced as the advertising industry’s ‘judge and jury’ by critics, its position is unlikely to be weakened, says Sonoo Singh

The regulator that ensures ads for bags of crisps or jars of anti-wrinkle cream are “honest and decent” this week celebrates its first anniversary as a one-stop shop for broadcast and non-broadcast advertising this week.

The Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA’s) job is to make sure that all advertising “meets the high standards laid down in the advertising codes”, only stepping in if the consumer thinks that there is something wrong. In the past 12 months it has been stepping in not only for non-broadcast, but also for television and radio ads.

The supporters of advertising self-regulation in the UK are marking this anniversary as a significant milestone in the history of British advertising. The number of complaints handled by the ASA in the first quarter of this year has gone up compared with the same period in the previous two years, according to ASA director-general Christopher Graham, and many in the industry see this as a reason to celebrate.

In the first quarter of 2005, the number of comin the same period in 2004 and 2,314 in 2003. The number of broadcast ads complained about was 739 in first quarter of 2005, compared with 518 in 2004 and 821 in 2003. The percentage of ads subject to the “upheld” ruling was six per cent in the first quarter of 2005, 0.2 per cent less than in the same period in 2004 and 2.2 per cent less than in 2003. The new regulator is also projecting that 28,000 complaints will have been resolved by the end of this year.

Too much power?

However, critics are concerned that the ASA’s new powers have given the advertising industry complete licence to establish and enforce advertising codes. For the first time, broadcast stations – alongside advertisers – have a direct say in drawing up and reviewing standards for the ads they air.

In a survey commissioned by Marketing Week, 59 per cent of respondents say they think ASA judgements are influenced by commercial considerations. The telephone omnibus research by TNS says that only 27 per cent think that commercial considerations do not sway the ASA.

Campaigner and Guardian columnist George Monbiot says this framework makes the industry “both the judge and jury”. He adds: “It is outrageous that the so-called regulator has been designed to give corporate businesses a free run to advertise and market themselves.”

Silencing the critics

Last year, the National Consumer Council (NCC) also expressed unease at how commercial interests control the new codes of advertising practice after Ofcom announced its decision to contract out its control of broadcast advertising. At the same time, the Consumers Association (CA) also voiced similar worries about the advertisers’ control over codes of practice, but a year on there is silence from both.

The NCC says a 12-month period does not give it enough time to take stock of the new regulatory system and its activities. The CA says the new regime is no longer its concern after the departure of one of its senior policy officers. Graham says the ASA has always been about maintaining high standards in advertising and the fact that the new ASA has heard so little from consumer lobby groups means it has been a success.

On the right track

Incorporated Society of British Advertisers director of public affairs Ian Twinn says lobby groups that see themselves as protectors of consumer interests were always going to question the new system. “The one-stop shop is a grown-up approach and the new ASA has done well to take on the challenge and responsibility of self-regulation,” he adds.

Hugh Burkitt, a former ASA council member and chief executive of the Marketing Society, says his impression of the new system has been that of a “tougher regulator”. Burkitt thinks it was sensible to have a one-stop shop for all advertising complaints because the ASA “does not just adjudicate, but also tells the world at large that it does so”.

However, one insider says the new regime is still struggling to iron out creases with the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC), the pre-clearance body that polices TV advertising. There have been rumours about an “uncomfortable” relationship since the emergence of the new regulator, with the ASA wanting to exert a greater influence over the BACC.

“Advertisers have also been complaining that while the BACC has been busy getting TV scripts and ads approved, it has neglected its role of advising agencies about pursuing a particular creative route,” adds the insider. The ASA also stands accused of being “inconsistent” and “schizophrenic”, especially on issues of taste and decency.

One advertising executive points to the Fanta Z advertisement, which was censured for encouraging bad behaviour among children because it showed people spitting the drink out of their mouths (MW July 7). The ASA restricted showings of the ad to after 9pm.

However, it rejected complaints about a KFC commercial that showed women in a call centre singing a song praising the advertiser’s chicken salad while eating it. Despite being the most complained-about ad ever, with many people claiming it encouraged children to speak with their mouths full, the ASA decided it did not break the Code because it considered that children brought up with “table manners” were unlikely to change their behaviour after seeing the ad.

One marketer also queries the ASA’s decision to ban a TV ad for Domestos Bleach Cleaning Spray featuring an animated germ after complaints that it was frightening children. The ad shows a grey monster spitting at the camera as it bemoans the strength of the spray, and was banned from children’s scheduling by the ASA.

Monbiot also questions the validity of advertising codes when dealing with sensitive issues such as political advertising. Super-regulator Ofcom continues to enforce rules on political advertising and also for all TV sponsorship.

One rule for them…

“If BP has an ad claiming that it makes renewable energy then that will easily pass as a legal ad. But if Friends of the Earth were to oppose the ad with a campaign, this would be viewed as political advertising,” says Monbiot.

There is little doubt that the new regulatory powers will continue to attract criticism, increasing the need for the new ASA to prove its effectiveness. It is still officially on probation for another year, but the advertising industry will lobby hard to retain self-regulatory status. It seems unlikely that a handful of cynics will prompt the Government to take that power away.

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