Editorial: ASA under the influence of alcohol ad dissenters

Introducing a Newsnight item on the banning of a Courage beer poster, Jeremy Paxman asked if it was time for the Advertising Standards Authority to "get a life".

Of course, the watchdog is accustomed to such comments. They go with the territory and they highlight the impossible situation in which it often finds itself.

Had it not ordered the withdrawal of the poster in which a man appears to be "taking courage" to give an honest answer to his partner's inevitable question about her figure-hugging dress - "Does my bum look big in this?" - it would have been panned as sexist. In banning it, the ASA stands accused of being out of touch with the real world and having a sense of humour bypass.

The ASA has an often thankless task for which it deserves the industry's full support. It doesn't get many decisions wrong and its judgments usually favour common sense over a slavish interpretation of the rules.

Sometimes, though, the ASA does get it wrong, as it has done in this case. The poster simply provides a modern interpretation of the "Take Courage" theme that has been a feature of the brand's advertising since the 50s. And it takes its cue from a familiar slice of domestic life.

Most people would seem to agree. How else to explain that the poster attracted just three complaints to the ASA?

That it was prepared to act on such a tiny number of objections shows how highly charged the issue of alcohol advertising - and its alleged role in fuelling binge-drinking - has become. This is hardly surprising. Before the rules on alcohol promotion were tightened, they were being persistently flouted. So much so that some industry leaders feared that the whole regulatory system could be undermined.

Of course, the ASA is right to ensure the rules are kept. Ads that break them can inflict huge amounts of negative publicity on the industry. But it's a narrow line that divides a rigorous enforcement of the rules with what can seem like petty over-zealousness. Sadly, the ASA has just crossed it.

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