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