John Tylee examines the continuing attack on the ASA as a new threat
Taunted over its decision to show Gazza a red card for kissing Princess
Diana and abused for ordering the Tories to stop demonising Tony Blair,
the Advertising Standards Authority hasn’t enjoyed the best of summers.
Now the European Court threatens a miserable autumn with what may be a
serious threat to the ASA’s autonomy by ruling that advertising approved
by one EU country can’t be banned by another (Campaign, last week).
It could mean that contentious work from advertisers such as Benetton
may run in the UK unchallenged if a regulatory body elsewhere was
satisfied with it.
‘It’s a significant challenge to national systems of self-regulation
such as the ASA,’ Philip Circus, the legal affairs director of the
Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, warns.
Certainly, the provisional ruling is the last thing the ASA needs as it
comes to terms with some of the most vituperative criticism it has faced
in its 34-year history.
Stung by allegations of ‘playing God’ from Reader’s Digest (angered by
the banning of a direct mail shot) and of showing a lack of
accountability from Circus, Matti Alderson, the ASA’s director-general,
has been attempting to halt the mounting criticism.
‘The criticisms made of us are largely unfounded and unfair,’ she
complains. ‘They come from one advertiser who was only asked to do what
its competitors do and from an individual claiming to speak for the IPA
While fault-finding with the authority is nothing new, it has never been
so open, particularly among some major advertisers. They accuse the ASA
of pursuing personal agendas rather than sticking to established
guidelines, question its expertise and criticise its failure to
understand the complexities of big-budget campaigns.
Andrew Marsden, the marketing director of HP Foods and a former chairman
of the Institute of Sales Promotion, says: ‘The ASA is trying to spread
its role too broadly and it interprets its guidelines inconsistently.
Too often it tries to be evangelical. It isn’t the local vicar.’
A senior marketer at one of the UK’s biggest advertisers shares the
disquiet. ‘Some of the letters we get from the ASA asking us to
substantiate our advertising claims are downright amateurish and some of
its decisions flabbergast us,’ he says.
Alderson refutes such charges. ‘Our staff training is very good and
their experience is broad,’ she replies. ‘It’s not up to individual case
officers to make a judgment and advertisers can have any matter referred
to a panel made up of their industry peers.’
Much of the controversy revolves around where the ASA’s soul reposes.
Critics claim it has become remote from and insensitive to the business
that gave birth to it. The ASA retorts that it is in nobody’s pocket and
would lose public confidence if it was.
The lid finally blew off the pressure cooker of ASA criticism in April,
when the authority ordered Live TV, Mirror Group’s cable channel, to
pull a print ad in which Paul Gascoigne appeared to be kissing the
Princess of Wales.
Normally that would have been the end of the matter. But Kelvin
MacKenzie, Mirror TV’s managing director, refused to lie down. The Young
and Rubicam ad appeared with Will Carling substituted for Gazza,
MacKenzie branded the ASA’s decision ‘arcane’ and ‘outdated’ and defied
it to do its worst.
In reality, its worst doesn’t amount to much. The watchdog has few
teeth, prompting a suggestion by Alasdair Ritchie, TBWA’s chief
executive, for a new body comprising agency and client representatives
working alongside the ASA with the industry’s approval and empowered to
levy fines of up to pounds 50,000 on agencies overstepping the mark
How much industry charges of high-handedness against the ASA are
connected with the hands-on style of Lord Rodgers, its chairman, is a
moot point. The one-time Labour minister arrived early last year vowing
to be more than a mere figurehead, sparking a reported demarcation
dispute with his director-general.
Alderson waves her new four-year contract to quash resignation talk. But
speculation is rife that Rodgers’ term of office may not be renewed by
Brian Nicholson, chairman of the Advertising Standards Board of Finance,
when it expires in 1999.
Asked about her alleged uneasy peace with Rodgers, Alderson is
enigmatic. ‘We sail in calm waters,’ she says.
Meanwhile, Rodgers must help dig the ASA and the Committee of
Advertising Practice out of the mire into which the row over political
advertising has plunged them. Even John Hooper, director-general of the
Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, who chaired the review
panel that drew up the rules, acknowledges they have to be changed.
‘We’ve made a rod for our own backs,’ he says.
Nevertheless, he and other industry leaders such as Winston Fletcher,
the Advertising Association chairman, declare their unswerving support
for the ASA. ‘It’s doing a splendid job,’ Fletcher insists.
Private grumbles there may be a-plenty. But with the prospect of an
incoming Labour government that may take a less relaxed view about self-
regulation, the ASA has the satisfaction of knowing that few within
advertising will dare rock its boat too hard.
Opinion, page 25