Close-Up: The ten advertisers that keep the ASA in business

As the ASA launches a review of its operations in the face of 26,000 complaints every year, a closer look at the offenders' list reveals the companies that constantly flout the laws - Campaign has drawn up our top ten.

Every year, the Advertising Standards Authority receives in excess of 26,000 complaints, and every week it is forced to make rulings on whether ads that appear to flout its regulations should be banned or not.

As the number of complaints grows, so does the pressure on the regulator - which has just launched a review of its operations, amid criticism that its processes can make appealing a decision too difficult to achieve.

But in the ASA's defence, there are some advertisers that seem to make something of a habit of testing the boundaries. Ryanair, for example, or Peta, which has seen every ad for the past three years receive large numbers of complaints, are among Campaign's top ten worst offenders. Here are the companies that keep the ASA's decision-makers awake at night.

1. Ryanair

If there was a handbook on how to piss off the ASA, then it would be written by the Ryanair marketing department.

The low-cost airline has made such a point of flouting the ASA guidelines that it has become almost commonplace to see stories in the national press. The company has, time and again, proved itself to be the master of turning banned ads into PR stunts and, by purposely aggravating the ASA, gained much more media coverage than normal ads ever would - £1 million-worth of incremental media coverage, to be precise.

Between 2006 and 2008, the company put out so many ads that persistently breached ASA rules, through being misleading on prices and offers, that the regulatory body eventually referred the case to Ofcom, which is an extremely rare move. The upshot was that Ofcom forced the airline to increase the clarity of its ads.

However, between the time Ryanair was referred to Ofcom and the regulator made its decision, the company had managed to put out a slew of further ads that picked up another 100-plus complaints.

2. DFS

DFS may spend more than £90 million a year on advertising and now use the world famous bore-rockers Nickelback in its spots to try to achieve a bit of gravitas, but it doesn't mean the company is not above trying it on with its ads and attempting to pull the wool over the audience's eyes.

Not only has the company managed to get into hot water with the ASA four times in the past three years for misleading consumers over prices and sales offers, but it has actually had an ad banned for using camera trickery to exaggerate the size of its products and make one of its sofas appear larger than it actually was.

3. L'Oreal

It's obvious that there are some interesting sub-categories blooming in this list. Some advertisers will purposely break the rules for PR reasons, some do it unintentionally because they tackle prickly issues. Meanwhile, others just seem to have bad luck.

However, there are some companies that simply seem to be trying to confuse consumers, and L'Oreal was proved to be one of these when news broke in 2007 that, while appearing in an ad for L'Oreal Telescopic Mascara, Penelope Cruz was wearing false eyelashes.

In fact, special mention needs to be given to the cosmetics industry as a whole, which produces fistfuls of ads that get complained about on a regular basis - generally because the claims made about products cannot be proved.

4. Peta

It's not a shock that Peta, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which is famous for hurling red paint at celebrities wearing furs, turns up in this list.

The group uses shock value in almost everything it does and consistently pushes the boundaries of the ASA's codes with every ad.

In fact, in the past three years, it hasn't managed to put out a campaign that hasn't been complained about. Job done, as far as Peta is concerned.

Its ability to shock the populace, however, was taken to a new level when it erected a billboard in Coventry (the home to Leanne Salt, a 30-stone woman the tabloids have dubbed "Britain's fattest mother", who admitted to feeding her triplets chicken nuggets and burgers since they were six months old) showing a kid's giant face tucking into a burger and the provocative strapline: "Feeding kids meat is child abuse." The advertising equivalent of a tin of Dulux Red Stallion 6.

5. COI

It's actually unsurprising that COI ads are complained about so often, considering it has to tackle some the country's thorniest issues. Much of its work has to be powerful and memorable to make an impact. The downside is that the required impact often comes from shock value, which regularly upsets the easily offended, bleeding-heart liberals in the audience.

One of the main culprits is the Department of Health, which has had its anti-smoking "fish hook" campaign - which saw people with fish hooks in their mouths - banned, as well as receiving complaints for an ad for its anti-obesity "change for life" campaign that raised the ire of the gaming world by insinuating that playing computer games could lead to obesity and death.

6. Magners

Over the past few years, the alcohol industry has increasingly found itself at the business end of numerous and serious ad curbs, meaning interesting work is becoming less commonplace and more likely to be banned.

Magners has fallen foul of this on more than one occasion, having both TV and poster campaigns banned for apparently showing the drink as boosting confidence.

However, it's heartening to note that the system is not totally against the advertisers. Last year, the ASA didn't uphold a complaint about the company's use of the word "feck", made famous by the TV programme Father Ted, on a poster ad. The word was used as a warning to bees who regularly attack the orchards where Magners' apples are grown.

7. Paramount Pictures

Sometimes advertisers can get into trouble with the ASA for nothing more than a combination of bad luck, bad research and an over-sensitive parent.

Paramount has been hit by all three with ads that were really just guilty of not being thought through. A recent case included an online ad that linked to a website where clips of the film I Love You Man were available to watch. Unfortunately for the distributor, one such clip involved a conversation about oral sex that one parent thought was offensive and unsuitable for display on universal sites such as Yahoo!.

8. Tesco

In the supermarket category, the name of the game is price promotions and comparative ads. This means hundreds of fast turnaround executions trumpeting your own offers, while mercilessly attacking those of your competitors. The biggest exponent of this is Tesco, which pumps out ad after ad after ad through its agency, The Red Brick Road. However, this means that it also regularly falls foul of the regulator for misleading consumers with price offers.

In fact, since July, the company has had four ads banned by the ASA - which is pretty astonishing.

In January this year, things got sticky for the company when the Labour MP Rosie Cooper got involved in the fray by claiming that Tesco had broken ad rules by running special offers on alcohol without ensuring that it had enough stock to fulfil any demand.

9. Daily Express

The Daily Express has recently been in a number of scrapes with the ASA for blurring the lines between editorial and advertising by not properly identifying when a feature is just that or is, in fact, a paid-for advertorial.

Earlier in the month, the regulator ruled that the newspaper had been routinely publishing articles favourable to particular products above related ads that were misleading to the reader.

The Express' defence was that the journalist had not been paid by the advertiser, and the advertiser had no right to change the content of the text.

10. Greenwash

As an overall issue, greenwashing (companies making spurious claims about being more green and climate conscious than they actually are) is a regular feature in the news.

However, the problem became such a political hot potato earlier in the year that the Government decided it had to step in and get to grips with it. After an enquiry by MPs, an all-party Commons Environmental Audit Committee called on the ASA to take a harder line on companies making environmentally friendly claims.

It made a special note of some of the worst offenders, which are, unsurprisingly, the power companies including Shell, which had an ad banned for making false claims about its green credentials.

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