CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/THE ASA’S POWERS; Does the ASA have any real authority?

The ASA seems unable to stop Live TV’s antics. John Owen asks what its role is

The ASA seems unable to stop Live TV’s antics. John Owen asks what its

role is



Funny it may have been, but the Daily Mirror’s decision to run Live TV’s

contentious ‘Princess Diana kisses Will Carling’ ad last Thursday has

serious implications.



The decision represents a blatant breach of the self-regulatory system

by which print advertising is governed. And it exposes the toothlessness

of that system when one player flouts the rules. The Mirror Group, which

owns both Live TV and the Daily Mirror, need not fear the threat of

sanctions. There are none.



The Advertising Standards Authority, whose thankless task it is to rule

without any means of enforcing its edicts, had already judged

unacceptable an ad in which the head of the footballer, Paul Gascoigne,

was superimposed on to the body of Prince Charles, kissing Diana on the

balcony of Buckingham Palace after the couple’s wedding.



Never one to turn down the chance of free publicity, Kelvin MacKenzie,

the managing director of Mirror TV, lambasted the clause as ‘arcane’ and

declared on Radio 4’s Today programme that he would stick with the ad.

Then he had a change of heart - and a change of ad. Even more

mischievous. Enter Carling.



Although new, the ad contravened the same ASA clause as the Gazza

version. So why did the Mirror run it? Roger Eastoe, deputy managing

director of Mirror Group, puts it baldly: ‘We took legal opinion and we

ran the ad.’ Legally, the Mirror is in the clear. But doesn’t the

decision undermine the self-regulatory system?



Caroline Crawford, the director of communications at the ASA, is in no

doubt as to the damage Mirror Group could cause. But, she insists, with

the support of the rest of the industry, this ‘one bad apple’ can be

brought into line.



‘The industry wants self-regulation to remain,’ she says. ‘The

alternative is statutory control, which would be far more stringent.’

So, fearful of a loss of public confidence in the self-regulatory

system, the industry will apply ‘peer pressure’ on Mirror Group to think

again, Crawford asserts.



At a meeting of the ASA Council last Friday, the authority resolved to

write to the Daily Mirror and Live TV to demand an explanation and to

ask the Committee of Advertising Practice, the industry body which draws

up the ASA codes, to apply pressure.



CAP represents 21 professional and trade bodies and if these bodies gave

unanimous support to a call for Mirror Group to mend its ways, it may

just have the desired effect, Crawford believes.



The problem is, they are not going to. Philip Circus, legal director at

the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and its representative at

CAP, sides with MacKenzie. ‘Our stance is wrong,’ Circus declares. ‘It

is not the job of the ASA to enforce the rules of the Lord Chamberlain’s

office, particularly when they are out of step with public opinion. It

would be very sad if self-regulation was damaged by such a worthless

cause.’



Since the codes are already being reviewed, the change could be made

effortlessly - as long as everyone agrees. But until and unless the

codes do change, the ASA has no choice but to apply them as they stand.

Which, for all his protestations to the contrary, suits MacKenzie down

to the ground.



Whether the Mirror will run the ad again is uncertain and it is unlikely

any other media owners will take it. But we may not have seen the end of

‘Carling’. As MacKenzie told Today: ‘If it came to it that we were

banned from everywhere, we would simply go flyposting or produce a

pamphlet and hand it out outside tube and rail stations.’



However he does it, MacKenzie will attempt to ensure that the saga runs

and runs - giving Live TV more column inches of exposure than it

probably has viewers.



Live TV is not the first, nor will it be the last, advertiser to reap a

PR benefit from having a complaint against it upheld by the ASA. As

Martin Loat, the managing director of Propeller Marketing

Communications, points out: ‘The ASA occupies a very special position

for savvy advertisers who want to generate complaints to get press

coverage. It is official enough to be taken seriously, but too weak to

impose real penalties.’



For example, the banning of Club 18-30’s ‘beaver Espana’ poster helped

generate 30 national press stories - and the ban itself came long after

the 14-day, 96-sheet campaign had finished.



Mike Gorman, the media director at Club 18-30’s agency, Saatchi and

Saatchi, is open about the attractions of the poster medium for this

sort of ad. ‘With outdoor,’ he says, ‘by the time people have

complained, it’s too late. Which is why a lot of people use it.’



It’s also why Alan Simmons, the chairman of the poster specialist,

Concord, called last week for poster ads by previous offenders to be

outlawed. His concern is that unless self-regulation is seen to work

pre-emptively, statutory legislation will be introduced.



It is a tricky issue. Should media owners be the arbiters of good taste?

Who defines good taste? Who is to say that the ASA and the poster

contractors would agree on that definition?



But one thing is for sure: if media owners do not take more

responsibility for the ads they run, there will be more controversy,

more complaints and, of course, more press coverage. While this may be

great for the advertisers in the short term, this shameless milking of

the PR opportunity could well pose the most serious threat to self-

regulation in the long term.



Perspective, p16



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