Four years ago, the Advertising Standards Authority couldn’t seem
to please anyone. Condemned by the press as toothless, it faced
accusations of inconsistency and weakness.
The low point came when Live! TV went ahead with a press ad featuring an
image of Princess Diana kissing Paul Gascoigne, the footballer, after
the ASA had ruled that the ad contravened the advertising code’s
prohibition on references to the Royal Family. Kelvin MacKenzie, then
the managing director of Mirror Television, lambasted the clause as
’arcane’ and declared on Radio 4’s Today programme that he would stick
with the ad.
In a typical bit of establishment-baiting, MacKenzie went a step further
and Live! TV came out with a new ad that replaced Gascoigne with an even
more controversial figure - Will Carling. The ad ran and the debacle was
hugely embarrassing for the ASA, revealing the extent to which the
organisation relied on the goodwill of the industry to exercise its
Last week the ASA published its annual report for 1999 and its
director-general, Matti Alderson, left the organisation along with the
director of communications, Caroline Crawford. With Christopher Graham,
head of the BBC’s internal complaints unit, having now replaced
Alderson, has the ASA managed to throw off the problems that dogged it
during the 90s?
Rupert Howell, the president of the agency body, the IPA, and the
chairman of HHCL & Partners, believes it has.
’The ASA is pretty good at the moment - if you look at the rulings they
seem sensible. You don’t get knee-jerk reactions from the ASA - they are
nobody’s patsy but they are not hysterical either.’
Of the top ten most complained-about ads handled by the ASA last year
only two, for Bravo’s Howard Stern Show and Louis Marcel depilatory
cream, had complaints upheld against them. The ad that received the most
complaints was a poster and press ad for bol.com, the online bookshop,
featuring a naked man and woman sitting entwined on a bed, each reading
a book. The ASA received 319 complaints but ruled that the ad was
unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence and the complaints were
Complaints against the Bravo poster ads, which featured lines such as
’It’s OK for a man to commit adultery if his wife is ugly’ to promote
Howard Stern’s show, were upheld. The ASA concluded that even though the
words had appeared in quotation marks they were likely to cause
widespread offence. It told Bravo to remove the ads and take
pre-publication advice from the Committee of Advertising Practice, which
draws up the ASA’s codes of practice.
It took similar steps against a Louis Marcel magazine ad which featured
a woman in her underwear beside the words ’I like my men rough, not my
legs’. But most ads that attracted complaints escaped without ASA
’The ASA is a very self-confident organisation which means it does the
job calmly and sensibly. And that is good for the industry because it
makes the public more confident about the ads they see,’ Howell says
’What bothered me about the Independent Television Commission’s ruling
on our Tango ads was not so much whether it was right or wrong as the
way it went about it.’
Alderson, who completed her term as director-general of the ASA last
week, has won the respect of the industry and will be much missed. Even
when the ASA has come in for criticism, it tends to be the rules rather
than the individuals implementing those rules that have been slated.
Alderson, who is a staunch supporter of the self-regulatory system,
believes the Live! TV episode was something of a storm in a teacup.
’Although it might sound complacent, there weren’t really any serious
problems,’ she says.
’When an organisation is taken seriously people do tend to criticise it.
We have to be sympathetic and listen to those criticisms but our
research shows that they are mainly unfounded. We have regular consumer
conferences to test the decisions we make against those the public would
make and we consistently come out in agreement. We have a compliance
rate of 98 per cent and most of our cases are adjudicated within 35 days
- far quicker than would be possible with a legal system.’
But Philip Circus, the head of legal affairs at the Institute of Sales
Promotion, believes that while the ASA has improved, there is still some
way to go.
’The problems the ASA faced a few years ago gave industry leaders a
wake-up call when they realised that it was not answerable to anyone -
not to Parliament, nor to industry. There was a feeling that the
industry was losing its grip on its own system,’ he says.
These improvements included a review of the codes the ASA administers
and the strengthening of the Advertising Standards Board of Finance
which finances the ASA. The ASA has also set up a poster pre-vetting
procedure to address the problem of repeat offenders seeking to flout
the rules with the express intention of provoking complaints and thereby
generating press coverage.
Graham faces a tough challenge ahead. His appointment comes as the ASA
grapples with the increasingly difficult job of policing ads at a time
of growing media convergence, giving greater opportunities for rogue
overseas advertisers to reach UK consumers. The critics of
self-regulation may have gone quiet for now but they are certain to