It may just be the end of the silly season, but there’s something
unpleasant about the sight of the press working itself up into a lather
about advertising. First there was ‘racist’ Persil, then Tony ‘demon’
Blair and, to cap it all, Roger ‘Lolita’ Moore. This last prompted a
flurry of calls to Campaign from the media demanding more examples of
child sexploitation advertising (apart from Harry and Molly, the
cupboard seems to be bare). Then Dominic Lawson saw fit to excoriate
poor old Lord Bill Rodgers (and, by extension, the Advertising Standards
Authority) in his Sunday Telegraph column for the latter’s allegedly
disjointed performance on Newsnight after the Blair ruling.
As if that wasn’t enough, some advertisers have declared open season on
the ASA, which is now running around in all of a tizzy wondering why
nobody loves it. Taking it all together, there seems to be a
demonstrable lack of understanding on the part of both the media and
some advertisers as to the exact role the ASA plays.
Now, tempting as it might be to kick the ASA when it’s on the floor, I
think it’s time a voice was heard in its defence. For starters, let’s
applaud the commendable speed and clarity with which the ASA ruled on
the Blair ad, which seems to me to be a pretty effective example of its
new fast-track policy. I also think it made the right decision and,
going back over most of the controversies of the past year (Club 18-30,
Gossard, Playboy TV, to name but a few), I can’t think of a single ASA
decision with which I fundamentally disagreed.
Of course, its very remit means that the ASA is bound to annoy agencies
and advertisers - just like a football referee annoys whichever side he
But, just as the ref’s job is to uphold the laws and the spirit of the
match for the benefit of the game as a whole (and the spectators), so
the ASA’s role is to protect the public for the good of the industry as
To take the analogy further, the edifice of football rests on the fact
that the ref’s decision is final, and to argue with it brings the game
into disrepute. And that is the danger that looms if advertisers and
agencies seek to undermine the ASA (which is why there was something
deeply unedifying about the sight of cynical Tory spokesmen smirking
about the amount of free publicity they got) by the kind of
opportunistic gamesmanship that is now common currency in the ad
You may say I am crying wolf, but it seems to me that if the industry
treats the ASA with contempt, then it won’t be long before Westminster
concludes that the system ain’t working and that it’s time for something
else. When that happens, there are only two ways it might go - and
neither is particularly palatable: pre-vetting or statutory regulation.
Perhaps even both.
There is a saying in politics that countries get the governments they
deserve. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this might apply to more
than just politics.