Opinion: Perspective - MPs should leave the ASA to do its job properly

By Claire Beale, claire.beale@haymarket.com, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 16 January 2009 12:00AM

Last week, the Church of England said it defended the right "of any group representing a religious or philosophical position to be able to promote that view through appropriate channels".

The CoE was commenting on the new bus ad campaign, backed by the British Humanist Association, proclaiming "there's probably no God". Considering the controversy the ad has already stirred, the church was quite sensible in its response, no doubt reassured by all the sensible checks and balances that adland's regulatory system has carefully constituted to ensure all ads are not generally considered offensive. And the Methodist Church was also pretty relaxed about the idea of an ad campaign probing the God issue: "This campaign will be a good thing if it gets people to engage with the deepest questions of life," it said.

Unfortunately, MPs have not been quite so sanguine about the idea of opening up the debate through the medium of advertising. In a manner that has become all too familiar to the ad industry, a group of blood-boiled MPs has now tabled a Commons motion calling for a government ban on the campaign (page 1). No matter that the agnostic campaign came in response to recent ads from Christian organisations that linked to a website telling non-Christians they were condemned to Hell for not accepting the word of Jesus, MPs have called the latest ads "religiously offensive and morally unhelpful". Adland is once again besieged by interference that pays little respect to the industry's own framework of self-regulation.

The point of the regulatory system is that it takes a measured and forensic view of matters of taste and decency and is not swayed by the sort of knee-jerk emotional or partisan approach that this latest motion seems fuelled by. Either the ad industry is allowed to police and adjudicate on its own work - which it has been doing now successfully for many years - or advertising standards are a matter for government ruling; surely it has to be one or the other.

Is it any wonder that advertisers such as the Advanced Medical Institute (see Opinion 1, opposite) are refusing to accept the rulings of the Advertising Standards Authority when some MPs so clearly do not respect its powers or processes? If self-regulation is to continue to flourish, it must be allowed to conduct its job unhindered by sporadic interference from politicians.

I've always been a fan of Tesco's advertising: smart, informative, funny, beautifully consistent. And there can be few teams that understand their client as well as the ex-Lowe, now The Red Brick Road, Tesco crew.

Legend has it that even after Sir Frank Lowe split with his eponymous agency (and before he masterfully snaffled the Tesco account from them), he secretly saw the retailer's ads before they were signed off. Certainly, they've rarely missed a beat over the years.

Despite the gloomy headlines, Tesco even had a respectable Christmas trading period. Monthly unique users for Tesco.com were up 15 per cent and overall like-for-like group sales were up 3.5 per cent.

Still, I hear the company is taking a careful look at its advertising strategy as it moves into the downturn and that the improved performance of its rivals is likely to spark a new approach.

So it's interesting to note new research from Verdict into the nation's favourite retailers. Verdict asked customers to rate stores on metrics like range, price, convenience, quality, service, ambience, facilities and layout (though definitely not advertising). John Lewis is the out-and-out winner. But in the grocery sector, Waitrose takes top spot, followed by Aldi (sales up 25 per cent last year, admittedly from a tiny base) and then Asda.

Tesco might not be our favourite, but it is still by some way our biggest retailer and its communications need to bring the two values closer together. Where the advertising and marketing teams now take the ad strategy will be fascinating to track.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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