Do fewer complaints mean the ASA's job is now easier?

Falling numbers of referrals to the ad watchdog are unlikely to see its workload cut, Matt Williams writes.

Sex! Animal cruelty! Abortion! The Advertising Standards Authority's Annual Report was published last week, and its contents were enough to make the Daily Mail's editorial department explode.

Contained in it was the revelation that consumers complained on 25,214 occasions about 13,074 ads in 2010, resulting in a total of 2,226 campaigns either being forced to be withdrawn or changed by the ASA.

Eye-popping they may seem, but the statistics mean that the total number of complaints actually fell year on year by 13 per cent, with the number of campaigns subject to complaint also falling by 6 per cent.

This, Stephen Woodford, the chief executive of DDB UK, says, is something worth celebrating: "The fact that fewer ads are subject to complaint has to be a good thing. There are thousands of ad campaigns released each year, so if we can show that the overwhelming majority of agencies are moralistic and behaving responsibly, then the public will be more inclined to trust us."

But James Best, the chairman of the Committees of Advertising Practice, warns that while it's pleasing to see the complaint numbers fall, any celebrations may be more than a little premature.

"Frankly, the number of complaints fluctuates year to year," he says. "Some years, you just need to have a couple of very high-profile cases and that's all it takes to really boost the numbers."

And 2009 may have been one such year. After such controversial campaigns as The Christian Party's "there definitely is a God" and Volkswagen's "sometimes the only one you have to beat is yourself", agencies would have had to resort to extreme measures for complaints to increase in 2010.

Well, maybe not too extreme - just feature an animal in their campaign instead. Almost 2,000 complaints made about ads in the past year were linked to issues surrounding animal welfare, with three of the top ten most-complained-about spots during the year - Paddy Power, John Lewis and Irn Bru - all facing the wrath of animal protestors.

Woodford, whose own agency encountered the issue in 2008 when it created the Volkswagen "Polo confidence" spot featuring a singing dog, admits that agencies are treading a fine line by including animals in their advertising: "You have to work incredibly hard to avoid any suggestions of animal cruelty," he says. "Luckily, for the most part, the ASA shows very restrained judgment when it comes to tackling such issues."

None of the complaints about the Paddy Power, John Lewis or Irn Bru ads were upheld by the ASA.

In fact, only two of the top ten most-complained-about spots of 2010 received any sort of crackdown at all.

"It's very important to us that we don't take the number of complaints into question," Best says. "One complaint is enough for us to have to investigate."

He points out that what the ASA tends to find is that ads with numerous complaints usually stem from people angry about perceived offensiveness rather than anything more tangible.

"With Paddy Power, for instance, we found that the relevant charities and blind footballers were very much in favour of the ad," Best explains. "And when we looked into it, we found it was clearly a daft little piece of entertainment."

Furthermore, a lot of the high-profile cases get dismissed because people are complaining about the morality of the actual brand or the service being advertised in the ad, rather than the ad itself.

"With the Marie Stopes ad (the second most-complained-about ad of the year), a number of postcards were sent to us as part of an organised protest before the ad even ran," Best says.

"People had not even seen the ad," he recalls. "They were just complaining about what it stood for. The ad itself was actually extremely anodyne."

These cases are fairly easy for the ASA to deal with. The most time-consuming, Best argues, are the complaints made, not by consumers, but by other companies.

"Industry complaints are usually the most complicated," he says. "It's mostly corporates slugging it out using the ASA as a court jury as it's a cheap way for them to score points over rivals and get a bit of publicity. Those cases can be a bit of a difficult balancing act."

But perhaps the biggest challenge for the ASA and CAP last year was to extend its remit online, meaning the non-broadcast code now applies to digital marketing communications.

The changes were publicised through a high-profile ad campaign and, in December, the organisations upheld a complaint about a video-on-demand ad for the very first time, when a spot for the 15-rated film Carriers, which was shown during The X Factor final on ITV Player, was deemed unsuitable for children.

It's still early days in determining the success of the new initiative, but Best says that it's already turning up some interesting questions. "New issues are arising every day because of the new remit," he says. "We're finding ourselves having to ask new questions such as: 'When is a blog a piece of marketing?'"

Though it will take time to iron everything out, Best is confident that CAP and the ASA have the intellectual muscle to resolve the issues. "We've just got to make sure that we stay relevant, stay responsive and keep up with the changes in the industry," he says. "On the whole, consumers find ads entertaining and useful, and we need to keep it that way."

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