Close-Up: Live Issue - ASA ready to face challenges as the new single ad regulator

A 'joined-up' system of ad regulation is a must-have for the ASA.

Britain's ad industry has been casting nervous glances over its shoulder, fearing official threats to its freedom ever since the mid-70s, when Jim Callaghan's government warned it: "Put your house in order or we'll do it for you."

In recent years, however, ministers have been mollified over adland's ability to regulate itself. And the rapprochement has just manifested itself in plans for the biggest shake-up of advertising regulation for half a century.

Out goes what, until now, has been a divided system, part of it self-regulated, the other subject to statutory control.

While the Advertising Standards Authority, set up by the industry in 1962 to ward off the threat of government intervention, oversees print, cinema and internet advertising, the Independent Television Commission has been fulfilling its legal obligation to keep TV commercials legal, decent and honest.

Now Ofcom is allowing the policing role for all advertising, both broadcast and non-broadcast, to be carried out by a single watchdog under the auspices of the ASA.

While the communications regulator will have powers in reserve to ensure the interests of consumers are properly protected, including the right to amend advertising codes, it is a beefed-up ASA that will administer the system.

The ASA will see its staffing level leap from 76 to 167 people and its annual budget grow from £4.8 million to £8 million. It will be funded by extending the existing 0.1 per cent levy on non-broadcast advertising to broadcast ads.

So why has the ASA been selected to take on a job that Ofcom clearly didn't relish having to do for itself?

Christopher Graham, the ASA's director-general and the man most likely to take charge of the enlarged organisation, suggests the ASA's track record made Ofcom's decision a no-brainer.

"Over the past few years, it's been noticeable that the Government thinks rather well of the work we do," he says.

The immediate task, once Parliament gives its formal go-ahead, will be to get the enlarged ASA working from a single central London location and install the extra IT systems necessary to have it operating efficiently. Meanwhile, two new senior appointments - a head of investigations and a head of compliance - will have to be made. Both posts will be open to applications from ASA and former ITC managers.

Over the longer term, the priority is to bring cohesion and synergy to a system that embraces self-regulation and statutory control. Subtle differences between the broadcast and non-broadcast codes, particularly in the contentious area of alcohol advertising, have to be ironed out.

At the same time, there'll be a need to ensure that the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre and its radio counterpart, which will continue pre-vetting broadcast material, are singing from the same songsheet.

Not that the new set-up has won universal approval. The Consumers' Association, in particular, has voiced concerns about Ofcom handing over control of the codes in the midst of a major public debate about the rules governing the advertising of snack foods to children.

Allan Williams, the association's senior policy advisor, says: "There is no advantage to consumers in creating a 'one-stop shop' if it is at the expense of the credibility, transparency and effectiveness of the current system."

It's not a case of codes being more rigorously enforced but being applied more consistently, Graham says. "The fact that people will be discussing issues around the water cooler will lead to more consistent interpretations," he adds.

He's emphatic that there should be no repeat of the cock-up that occurred in 2002, which led to an expensive campaign for Tetley Tea having to be dumped.

Shortcomings in the system were embarrassingly exposed when Tetley, having dropped the Tetley Teafolk, launched advertising through D'Arcy which repositioned the tea as a health drink.

The BACC cleared the TV campaign for screening but the decision was reversed after the ASA upheld complaints that the health claims in a couple of Tetley poster executions were misleading.

"Our day-to-day relationship with the BACC will be very close," Graham promises. "It's very important that we're seen to be on the same side."

Certainly a "joined-up" regulatory system will be vital as the ASA braces itself for what it predicts will be a significant rise in the number of complaints about ads as the new system kicks in.

The increase is anticipated partly as a result of a TV campaign to alert people to the new system, scheduled to begin on 1 November, and what they should do if they wish to protest about an ad.

At the same time, the ASA will continue urging consumers to make their complaints online. At present, 45 per cent of complaints are received in this way.

Most importantly, as far as the public is concerned, the system is expected to eliminate long-running confusion. The ASA's title has misled many into believing that the body is the watchdog for advertising in all its forms and it acknowledges that numbers of complaints have gone missing when being passed between the ASA and the ITC.

Graham, meanwhile, is flattered by Ofcom's unprecedented decision to subcontract such a high-profile task, but is under no illusions about what's expected. "It's a great compliment to everybody at the ASA. But we've a huge challenge and we don't underestimate it."

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