CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/SPEED - Regulators try to shunt car ads out of the fast lane. The fate of Peugeot's 206 spot is a taste of things to come. John Tylee reports

It was an uncannily prophetic voiceover which declared in a TV commercial for Peugeot's high-performance 206 GTi: 'Now you see it, now you don't.'

It was an uncannily prophetic voiceover which declared in a TV commercial for Peugeot's high-performance 206 GTi: 'Now you see it, now you don't.'

Last week the Independent Television Commission initiated a disappearing act of its own by ordering the film off air after only a single viewer's complaint that it placed undue emphasis on speed.

Whether or not the ad stepped across what will always be a very thin line is an open question. Brett Gosper, chief executive of Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper, the agency which produced it, predictably thinks it didn't.

'The commercial demonstrates the performance and responsiveness of the car,' he claims. 'We would never want to be seen encouraging reckless driving and we don't believe the film does so.'

A far bigger issue, though, is whether or not the ban - the first on a car commercial for several years - is the precursor of a new get-tough approach by regulators in response to a changing political climate on car advertising.

The debate centres on what role, if any, car advertisers should play in helping the Government achieve its target of a 40 per cent reduction in road deaths and serious injuries by 2010.

Last year, 3,423 people were killed on Britain's roads and 39,122 seriously injured. The rate compares favourably with the 8,000 annual road deaths in France, the worst in Europe, but still leaves the UK lagging behind Sweden which has policies in place to eliminate road deaths completely.

If the target, outlined in the Government's road safety strategy by Tony Blair earlier this year, is to be achieved, ministerial advisors are adamant that car advertisers must play their part. Codes must be more rigorously enforced by regulators and transgressors subjected to greater sanctions.

To bolster its case, the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions has commissioned research linking car advertising to driving behaviour and will reveal its conclusions at a meeting with representatives of the Advertising Association and the Independent Television Commission later this month.

The DETR will not indicate what the research has uncovered. But a spokesman said: 'Our hope is that the industry will accept that there is a sound case for car advertisers to run more with the grain and to encourage safer and more considerate driving.'

Although they aren't entirely sure of the DETR's findings, ad industry sources are already nervous. Researchers are said not to have confined themselves to drivers but to have questioned children as young as 14 about their eagerness to get behind the wheel.

'The results may be tenuous,' a senior executive involved in advertising regulation says. 'How many of us couldn't wait to burn the rubber off our dad's tyres when we were that age? It has nothing to do with advertising.'

The fear is that the research is merely a means to an end for Tony Allsworth, the DETR's head of publicity, who is determined that the 'Kill your speed' initiative should match the success of the campaign against drinking and driving. A recent survey revealed that 55 per cent of drivers persistently exceed motorway speed limits while 69 per cent regularly break the limit on urban roads.

There is even speculation that the DETR is prepared to carry its crusade beyond car manufacturers and to demand that any company featuring a car in an ad must show it being driven responsibly.

All this begs the question of whether commercial advertisers should be forced not only to toe the line but also to become instruments of government policy. Especially since watchdog bodies contend that car ads which fall foul of the rules are rare.

In evidence to a DETR sub-committee investigating issues such as speeding and joy riding last year, the Advertising Standards Authority, which polices all print and cinema advertising, examined more than 700 car ads and found more than 90 per cent of them complied with the codes. 'It's not a major problem,' Gary Ward, the ASA's head of communications, comments.

A TV industry source acknowledges that the decision to allow the 206 GTi commercial to be screened was 'probably a bit of a slip-up' but that overall 'we get it about right'.

'The DETR has been sabre-rattling about this for a long time,' he adds.

'It believes we're playing fast and loose with the rules and must tighten up our interpretation of them. The trouble is that the DETR has to be taken seriously. The ITC can't afford to get in bad odour with the Government.'

The possibility of a renewed crackdown has dismayed the Advertising Association, which thought it had laid the matter to rest two years ago when it persuaded the Government not to use its then EU presidency to press for a new pan-European code of practice for car advertising.

'Much of what the Government was proposing was reinventing the wheel and compliance rates by car manufacturers are already high,' Sara Price, the AA's head of public affairs, says.

Now the AA is worried that the Government will resurrect the EU initiative and try to implement a draft code that the AA claims is full of anomalies, particularly in its reference to the proposed outlawing of 'speed and performance indicators' in the advertising.

'Isn't a car's braking power a performance indicator?' Price asks. 'Are manufacturers actually going to be banned from saying their cars perform well in the wet?'

What's more, a pan-European code on car advertising would have to become part of UK law. 'The Government has always said that it supports the self-regulation system,' Price adds. 'Our big worry is that the system is about to be undermined.'



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