World: Analysis: EU expansion adds urgency to self-regulation standard drive

Adding ten members forces issue of setting up coherent systems, John Tylee reports.

A prior engagement will keep David Byrne away from this month's summit conference at the Meridien hotel in Brussels, at which representatives of major companies and trade organisations will pledge themselves to the creation of credible and sustainable systems of self-regulation across Europe. But his unseen presence will be palpable.

As the European commissioner for public health and consumer protection, the urbane and eloquent former Irish attorney-general, tipped by some as a future Taoiseach, has earned the respect - if not always the affection - of the continent's communicators.

On the matter of self-regulation, Byrne has left advertisers and agencies in no doubt about what he expects of them. He supports the principle, but has yet to be convinced it can deliver. There are too many gaps in the system, while sanctions are unevenly applied, he claims. And he has warned that legislation will ensue if the industry doesn't get its house in order.

"There's no doubt the system is creaking in parts," Dominic Lyle, the director-general of the European Association of Communication Agencies, agrees. "It needs to be more joined up."

An added worry for industry leaders is that Byrne steps down from his job later this year and may well be succeeded by an evangelist intent on neutering a wickedly manipulative business. Such a person would fail to understand the impossibility of imposing a European Union-wide self-regulatory system on a group of countries where cultures and attitudes to ads vary enormously.

To make matters worse, the EU has just undergone its biggest expansion since 1951, drawing in ten nations whose self-regulatory systems are at best embryonic, at worst non-existent.

Their arrival coincides with what is being seen as a heightened interest within the European Commission in forcing companies to put corporate social responsibility at the heart of their activities. The fear is that this might result in self-regulation giving way to co-regulation which, in the words of one industry insider, "could lead to every pressure group having its sixpenny-worth".

Much will depend on how successful the industry is seen to be in curbing its excesses in a number of key areas. Byrne has publicly declared his concern that alcohol advertising is getting out of hand; privately, industry leaders are dismayed and alarmed at what they see as the drinks industry's reckless disregard of advertising rules and its complacency in the face of possible action against it.

"Reducing the number of own goals is going to be a key issue for us," Oliver Grey, the director-general of the European Advertising Standards Alliance, which has organised the summit, admits.

Another lobbyist is more candid. "There are big clients who will pull the whole house down on us if we're not very careful," he warns.

Indeed, alcohol may prove to be the issue on which self-regulation in Europe stands or falls. Next year, the EC will publish its recommendations on adolescent alcohol consumption and will almost certainly call for restrictions on drinks advertising. Whether or not such a call is taken up by the EU will be a clear indication of which way the legislative wind is blowing and how well it feels the industry has met its challenge.

But alcohol is not the only area where the self-regulation's effectiveness will be closely scrutinised. The obesity controversy is not just confined to the UK but is causing concern across the continent, particularly in Italy, which has the highest percentage of overweight children in Europe.

Hard on its heels comes the portrayal of women in ads. Spain and Germany both have serious concerns and even France, famous for its laissez-faire attitude to sex, has seen uproar at the proliferation of so-called "porno chic" advertising from the fashion industry.

Meanwhile, the propensity for car advertisers to keep their foot on the pedal when approaching a creative barrier is a perpetual worry and will remain so as environmental problems increase.

In this contentious light, some within the industry are asking if the only way it can prove its commitment to making self-regulation work is by pre-vetting every ad.

With almost 50 million ads being produced and shown in Europe during 2004, this sounds like a tall order. In Britain, whose regulatory system is regarded as the gold standard, the Advertising Standards Authority will shortly assume control of broadcast advertising, where pre-vetting is a legal requirement.

ASA chiefs claim pre-vetting everything simply isn't practical. However, there's a belief that if Europe's advertising community is going to walk the talk, it must at least agree to pre-vet all work in sensitive categories.

What no-one disputes is that self-regulation in Europe is reaching a watershed. As one senior industry figure puts it: "We have to get this right, no matter what the cost."

SELF-REGULATION: HOW THE EU NEWCOMERS MEASURE UP

Poland has a draft code of advertising practice in place and an agreement to develop a self-regulatory organisation by the end of the year.

Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia all have independent self-regulatory organisations in operation.

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have all agreed a "roadmap" for the development of self-regulation. Systems to be operational next year.

Cyprus has not shown much progress yet but is expected to follow the example of its influential neighbour, Greece, which has a system in place.

Malta has no immediate prospect of self-regulation, but the market is tiny.

Turkey (opens talks to join EU in 2005) has had a self-regulatory system in operation for almost ten years.

Romania (may join EU in 2007) is currently working with EACA to ensure compliance with its best practice guidelines.

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