MEDIA: PERSPECTIVE; Lay off the ASA: an alternative system could be far worse

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.

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

rules against.



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

a whole.



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

industry.



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.



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