OPINION: ASA’s position on BA is a threat to self-regulation

Virgin Atlantic’s co-ordinated efforts in the UK and the US to prevent British Airways billing itself as ’the world’s favourite airline’ threaten to put advertising’s self-regulatory system in a tailspin.

Virgin Atlantic’s co-ordinated efforts in the UK and the US to

prevent British Airways billing itself as ’the world’s favourite

airline’ threaten to put advertising’s self-regulatory system in a

tailspin.



The Advertising Standards Authority has consistently bought BA’s

argument that its continued use of the line is justified by the fact

that it flies more international passengers than any other carrier.



Virgin, with some justification, dismisses this as mere semantics. Its

contention is not only that BA does not carry the greatest number of

passengers, but that the slogan is not borne out by BA’s performance in

various independent passenger surveys.



In continuing to back BA, the ASA is on dubious ground and risks setting

unintentional precedents while creating a situation that will slip out

of its control.



By ruling as it has, the ASA makes a worrying correlation between usage

and being the favourite. Does this mean that any advertiser claiming to

sell more widgets than anybody else in Britain can boast of being the

country’s favourite widget maker?



In the heavily regulated and restricted world of the international

airline business, judgments about which carrier is the favourite will

always be highly subjective. How many BA passengers use the airline

simply because it offers the right flight at the right time?



What’s clear is that, should Virgin so choose, it could cause the

self-regulatory system much discomfort. It could decide to challenge the

system via a judicial review by claiming that the ASA’s ruling is

unreasonable. With the courts taking an increasingly tough line over

advertising ’puffery’, Virgin may feel that the odds are in its favour.

Nor is there anything to stop it making a direct approach to the

director-general of fair trading with a call to intervene.



Any one of these outcomes could rebound badly on self-regulation. And if

airlines successfully put pressure on their national governments to get

BA’s slogan outlawed, the system is going to look very silly indeed.