CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/ADVERTISING STANDARDS AUTHORITY - Still room for improvement in ASA’s policing of advertising/Will a leadership change mean a tougher stance at the ASA?

Four years ago, the Advertising Standards Authority couldn’t seem to please anyone. Condemned by the press as toothless, it faced accusations of inconsistency and weakness.

Four years ago, the Advertising Standards Authority couldn’t seem

to please anyone. Condemned by the press as toothless, it faced

accusations of inconsistency and weakness.



The low point came when Live! TV went ahead with a press ad featuring an

image of Princess Diana kissing Paul Gascoigne, the footballer, after

the ASA had ruled that the ad contravened the advertising code’s

prohibition on references to the Royal Family. Kelvin MacKenzie, then

the managing director of Mirror Television, lambasted the clause as

’arcane’ and declared on Radio 4’s Today programme that he would stick

with the ad.



In a typical bit of establishment-baiting, MacKenzie went a step further

and Live! TV came out with a new ad that replaced Gascoigne with an even

more controversial figure - Will Carling. The ad ran and the debacle was

hugely embarrassing for the ASA, revealing the extent to which the

organisation relied on the goodwill of the industry to exercise its

powers.



Last week the ASA published its annual report for 1999 and its

director-general, Matti Alderson, left the organisation along with the

director of communications, Caroline Crawford. With Christopher Graham,

head of the BBC’s internal complaints unit, having now replaced

Alderson, has the ASA managed to throw off the problems that dogged it

during the 90s?



Rupert Howell, the president of the agency body, the IPA, and the

chairman of HHCL & Partners, believes it has.



’The ASA is pretty good at the moment - if you look at the rulings they

seem sensible. You don’t get knee-jerk reactions from the ASA - they are

nobody’s patsy but they are not hysterical either.’



Of the top ten most complained-about ads handled by the ASA last year

only two, for Bravo’s Howard Stern Show and Louis Marcel depilatory

cream, had complaints upheld against them. The ad that received the most

complaints was a poster and press ad for bol.com, the online bookshop,

featuring a naked man and woman sitting entwined on a bed, each reading

a book. The ASA received 319 complaints but ruled that the ad was

unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence and the complaints were

not upheld.



Complaints against the Bravo poster ads, which featured lines such as

’It’s OK for a man to commit adultery if his wife is ugly’ to promote

Howard Stern’s show, were upheld. The ASA concluded that even though the

words had appeared in quotation marks they were likely to cause

widespread offence. It told Bravo to remove the ads and take

pre-publication advice from the Committee of Advertising Practice, which

draws up the ASA’s codes of practice.



It took similar steps against a Louis Marcel magazine ad which featured

a woman in her underwear beside the words ’I like my men rough, not my

legs’. But most ads that attracted complaints escaped without ASA

censure.



’The ASA is a very self-confident organisation which means it does the

job calmly and sensibly. And that is good for the industry because it

makes the public more confident about the ads they see,’ Howell says

’What bothered me about the Independent Television Commission’s ruling

on our Tango ads was not so much whether it was right or wrong as the

way it went about it.’



Alderson, who completed her term as director-general of the ASA last

week, has won the respect of the industry and will be much missed. Even

when the ASA has come in for criticism, it tends to be the rules rather

than the individuals implementing those rules that have been slated.



Alderson, who is a staunch supporter of the self-regulatory system,

believes the Live! TV episode was something of a storm in a teacup.

’Although it might sound complacent, there weren’t really any serious

problems,’ she says.



’When an organisation is taken seriously people do tend to criticise it.

We have to be sympathetic and listen to those criticisms but our

research shows that they are mainly unfounded. We have regular consumer

conferences to test the decisions we make against those the public would

make and we consistently come out in agreement. We have a compliance

rate of 98 per cent and most of our cases are adjudicated within 35 days

- far quicker than would be possible with a legal system.’



But Philip Circus, the head of legal affairs at the Institute of Sales

Promotion, believes that while the ASA has improved, there is still some

way to go.



’The problems the ASA faced a few years ago gave industry leaders a

wake-up call when they realised that it was not answerable to anyone -

not to Parliament, nor to industry. There was a feeling that the

industry was losing its grip on its own system,’ he says.



These improvements included a review of the codes the ASA administers

and the strengthening of the Advertising Standards Board of Finance

which finances the ASA. The ASA has also set up a poster pre-vetting

procedure to address the problem of repeat offenders seeking to flout

the rules with the express intention of provoking complaints and thereby

generating press coverage.



Graham faces a tough challenge ahead. His appointment comes as the ASA

grapples with the increasingly difficult job of policing ads at a time

of growing media convergence, giving greater opportunities for rogue

overseas advertisers to reach UK consumers. The critics of

self-regulation may have gone quiet for now but they are certain to

return.