LIVE ISSUE: THE ASA’S ROLE - Has the ASA assumed powers beyond its remit?/The high-profile watchdog may be a victim of its own success, JOHN TYLEE writes

When Radio 4’s PM programme decided to run a piece on political correctness in advertising last month, calling Caroline Crawford seemed the most natural thing to do. The loquacious communications director of the Advertising Standards Authority is used to fielding questions from journalists and broadcasters. Always well briefed and with the facts at her fingertips, she never fails to return a call with a quotable comment.

When Radio 4’s PM programme decided to run a piece on political

correctness in advertising last month, calling Caroline Crawford seemed

the most natural thing to do. The loquacious communications director of

the Advertising Standards Authority is used to fielding questions from

journalists and broadcasters. Always well briefed and with the facts at

her fingertips, she never fails to return a call with a quotable

comment.



So what better person to offer some carefully chosen words about Ford’s

withdrawal of a commercial spoofing the Full Monty for fear of sparking

a race row?



Well maybe. Because for an influential body of opinion within the

industry, Crawford’s participation only reinforces the belief



that the ASA has evolved into a mouthpiece for the self-regulatory



system it was meant only to police.



It’s a situation that has happened more by accident than design and many

claim the ASA has only been filling a void created by shortcomings

elsewhere.



This is, perhaps, only natural given that the watchdog body’s title

bestows on it a status and credibility that gets it listened to by

Government ministers.



What’s more, its media-friendliness invariably makes it the first port

of call for hacks, few of whom will have heard either of the Committee

of Advertising Practice, which makes the rules for the ASA to enforce,

or the Advertising Standards Board of Finance, which provides the ASA’s

funds and appoints its chairman.



Small wonder, therefore, that the role and powers of the ASA cause

widespread confusion among the media and politicians who refer to the

’ASA codes’ in the mistaken belief that the authority is answerable only

to itself.



Now the industry wants to reassert its grip on a system it believes is

spinning out of its control by putting ASBOF, representing its most

important organisations, firmly back in the driving seat (Campaign, last

week).



The sensitivity of the issue has caused it to be shrouded in total

secrecy until now. So much so that briefing papers circulating between

trade bodies have emphasised the necessity for it not to be discussed

with journalists.



This is hardly surprising. The ASA may not be perfect but the industry

regards it as infinitely preferable to imposed regulation either by

Whitehall or Brussels. It was for that reason that advertising

luminaries rallied to its defence in the autumn of 1996 after it had

attracted some of the most savage criticism in its history. And also why

today they want to be seen to be doing nothing that will lead the

Government to believe they are losing faith in it.



Nevertheless, there is growing recognition within the Advertising

Association, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and the

Incorporated Society of British Advertisers that the system cannot

continue to operate as it does with the ASA having assumed a role never

intended for it.



’There’s a feeling that the industry has lost control of the system,’ an

insider says. ’The ASA has become its representative voice.’



Industry leaders want ASBOF, under the leadership of a full-time

executive director, to reclaim the function originally intended for it

when it was established in the 60s as a policy-making body and industry

voice with the ASA and the CAP as its two executive arms.



The aim is to redress the balance of power and influence which has

shifted in recent years towards the ASA and ensure that, by paying the

piper, ASBOF will be seen to call the tune. ’There’s a feeling that the

system is out of balance,’ John Hooper, ISBA’s director-general and a

former CAP chairman, says. ’We need to reinforce our commitment to

self-regulation.’



Behind the initiative is the belief that the upcoming potential

challenges to the ASA cannot be confronted properly if the

self-regulation system is in disarray.



The proposed Competition Bill threatens to render the ASA codes and copy

clearance procedures unlawful while the incorporation of the European

Convention of Human Rights into British law may pave the way for more

legal disputes involving ASA rulings. ’These are important policy

concerns,’ Andrew Brown, the AA’s director-general says. ’We need a

forum in which they can be discussed.’



The impetus for reform has been accelerated by disquiet over specific

areas of ASA activity. Some are worried about the way the authority, set

up to protect consumer interests, has been drawn in to referee public

slanging matches between rival advertisers. New arrangements would allow

heads to be knocked together behind closed doors with both parties bound

by a private agreement.



The other major worry concerns the ASA’s lack of an independent appeals

procedure. At present all appeals are considered by the ASA’s chairman,

Lord Rodgers, a situation even he is said to recognise as

unsatisfactory.



The ASA’s 1996 summer of discontent was marked by a series of refusals

by aggrieved advertisers to take ASA rulings lying down. And as markets

become more competitive and companies more litigious, there is a feeling

that ASBOF could take some of the heat out of the situation by becoming

the ASA’s ’court of appeal’.



Officially, the ASA is phlegmatic about having to stick to its knitting.

’We’re aware of the proposals but it’s up to the industry to discuss

them,’ Crawford says.



Others believe there will be little enthusiasm within the ASA for what

may be in store. ’It won’t be very keen about not being able to run the

show in the way it does at the moment,’ a trade body source declares.

’But we still don’t know if anyone has got the bottle to fire the

starting gun on all this.’



Leader, p17.



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