ANALYSIS: The ASA: older and wiser? - Legal, decent, honest, truthful - over 35 years, the principles of the advertising industry’s watchdog have meant different things to different sections of society In the tug of war between the advertiser and

The Advertising Standards Authority celebrates its 35th anniversary this week. As it enters middle age, the watchdog is under attack as never before - accused by some of being an aggressive beast that savages business freedoms while others, the Consumer’s Association in particular, view it as the toothless pet of commercial interests.

The Advertising Standards Authority celebrates its 35th anniversary

this week. As it enters middle age, the watchdog is under attack as

never before - accused by some of being an aggressive beast that savages

business freedoms while others, the Consumer’s Association in

particular, view it as the toothless pet of commercial interests.

Director-general Matti Alderson rejects talk of a mid-life crisis at the

ASA. ’We are in no doubt about what we are, what our role is and where

we are going,’ she says. ’The fact that we are getting so much flak from

both sides is actually a mark of our success. It means that we are

striking a balance between protecting the consumer, which is our first

duty, while infringing as little as possible on commercial freedom.’

The ASA may be clear about its role and direction but perhaps the

confusion in society at large results from the contradictions and

complications that surrounded its birth.

It was set up in 1962 as an independent body by the advertising industry

in response to the increasing influence of television and the embryonic

consumer movement. Its role was (and remains) to enforce the Code of

Advertising Practice which had been produced by the industry a year


In other words the ASA is an independent organisation representing the

consumer, funded by the advertising industry (through a 0.1% levy on ad

spends) to enforce a code developed by the advertising industry. It has

no government backing and only a quasi-legal status. It is hardly

surprising that many within the industry are unclear where its first

duty lies and many outside the industry doubt its independence.

This confusion is made worse by the fact that its apparently simple

mission - to ensure that all non-broadcast advertisements in the UK are

legal, decent, honest and truthful - is a target that has been

constantly moving and fragmenting, sometimes with frightening speed,

throughout its life.

For instance, if in 1962 you had wanted to advertise the life-enhancing

qualities of your heavy rolling tobacco with the copyline ’Women like a

good shag’, quite likely no one would have even raised an eyebrow.

You would merely have had to be able to prove that women really are

partial to coarsely shredded smoking mixture, if anyone challenged your


It wasn’t until 1975 that rules were introduced to say that smoking

could not be associated with social, sexual or romantic success.

The other major sector in which the facts have changed is alcohol. In

the early 60s it was still possible for the makers of Mackesons stout to

claim ’It looks good, it tastes good, and by golly it does you


And hardly an eye would be raised at the suggestions by advertisers that

vodka is a great aid to your love life. The ASA surrounds alcohol ads

with a whole battery of rules and regulations, particularly designed to

stop alcohol brands targeting young drinkers.

There have, however, been some constants in the ASA’s complaints


Throughout its 35 years it has struggled against waves of ads making

unsubstantiated claims for outlandish remedies and nostrums. Perhaps

this is the area in which demands for a statutory regulatory body are

most persuasive.

For despite the fact that of the nine referrals to the Office Of Fair

Trading (the ASA’s ultimate sanction) made since 1988, six were for

health and slimming products, the flood of misleading ads continues.

On the other hand, as Alderson points out: ’No company has been referred

twice and if a company really doesn’t care whether it breaks the rules,

even the law won’t stop it.’

Enforcing decency

But policing these products is merely a technical matter, albeit

complex, of gathering evidence and enforcing judgments. So much for

’legal’, ’honest’ and ’truthful’. The really thorny issue, the one which

most concerns the population at large is ’decency’, particularly in

relation to the portrayal of women and religion.

The rules state that ads should not cause ’serious or widespread

offence.’ So 30 years ago any amount of sexism could go unchallenged -

it was perfectly acceptable for cosmetics company Max Factor to show a

woman squirming against a five foot lipstick phallus and for another to

take a firm grip of an MG’s hand brake. But today blatant sexism is


On the other hand, the ASA now accepts that a different tone of

advertising may be appropriate for some media. Club 18-30, for example,

has now shifted its ’shock’ advertising from posters to magazines


The real problem for the ASA is that there is no longer a moral

consensus in society. Standards of decency are constantly changing and

they change at different rates among different sections of the


This explains the apparent arbitrary nature of many ASA decisions as it

attempts to tread an imaginary middle line that no other body in society

has to negotiate.

According to research, admittedly the ASA’s, most consumers think that

the ASA is doing a reasonable job. While it is true that it could

tighten up some of its procedures, particularly on how it receives

complaints and it could be given more teeth to make its sanctions work

better, there is little evidence that it is not fulfilling the factual

part of its brief very well.

Advertising is a reflection of the political and social tone of the


It’s easy to look back at ads from the 60s and chuckle over their gauche

sexual references, with the wisdom of hindsight. That is why the ASA’s

job will always be an impossible one; seeking to find what is acceptable

and unacceptable in the fluid movement of morality and marketing.

Health: Advertisers must now prove the claims made by their ads.

The ASA would demand convincing evidence that Vigor’s Horse Action

Saddle cured gout and corpulence. Products which claim to improve health

must also now be licensed

Cigarettes: Guidelines drawn up in 1975 by the ASA, Department of Health

and the tobacco industry require that cigarettes should not be

associated with sexual success or inspire admiration, like this 1931

Player’s ad

Taste and decency: The phallic imagery of this 60s Max Factor ad would

be considered offensive today. Modern day advertising should not offend

consumers on the grounds of sex, religion or race

Children: The use of children in ads is now strictly regulated.

The ASA requires advertisers to take a responsible attitude to children

- a principle this 50s 7-Up ad clearly disregards

Alcohol: In 1975 the industry introduced new codes to prevent alcohol

being advertised in an irresponsible way, like this 1970 ad for Cossack


Modern times: 90s advertisers have tested the ASA’s taste and decency

guidelines to the limit. In 1995 it received around 500 complaints about

Club 18-30’s series of press and poster ads featuring copylines like

’Beaver Espana’, ’The Summer of 69’ and ’Discover your erogenous zone’.

The ASA, noting that they caused widespread offence, ruled that the ads

irresponsibly advocated sexual and alcoholic excess

Shock tactics: The ASA logged 800 complaints for Benetton’s 1991 ’Baby’

ad - more than for any ad ever run before. The ASA upheld the complaints

on the grounds of taste and decency and some media owners boycotted the

ad altogether.