CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/THE ADVERTISING STANDARDS AUTHORITY; Can the ASA survive a constant flow of criticism?

John Tylee examines the continuing attack on the ASA as a new threat looms

John Tylee examines the continuing attack on the ASA as a new threat


Taunted over its decision to show Gazza a red card for kissing Princess

Diana and abused for ordering the Tories to stop demonising Tony Blair,

the Advertising Standards Authority hasn’t enjoyed the best of summers.

Now the European Court threatens a miserable autumn with what may be a

serious threat to the ASA’s autonomy by ruling that advertising approved

by one EU country can’t be banned by another (Campaign, last week).

It could mean that contentious work from advertisers such as Benetton

may run in the UK unchallenged if a regulatory body elsewhere was

satisfied with it.

‘It’s a significant challenge to national systems of self-regulation

such as the ASA,’ Philip Circus, the legal affairs director of the

Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, warns.

Certainly, the provisional ruling is the last thing the ASA needs as it

comes to terms with some of the most vituperative criticism it has faced

in its 34-year history.

Stung by allegations of ‘playing God’ from Reader’s Digest (angered by

the banning of a direct mail shot) and of showing a lack of

accountability from Circus, Matti Alderson, the ASA’s director-general,

has been attempting to halt the mounting criticism.

‘The criticisms made of us are largely unfounded and unfair,’ she

complains. ‘They come from one advertiser who was only asked to do what

its competitors do and from an individual claiming to speak for the IPA


While fault-finding with the authority is nothing new, it has never been

so open, particularly among some major advertisers. They accuse the ASA

of pursuing personal agendas rather than sticking to established

guidelines, question its expertise and criticise its failure to

understand the complexities of big-budget campaigns.

Andrew Marsden, the marketing director of HP Foods and a former chairman

of the Institute of Sales Promotion, says: ‘The ASA is trying to spread

its role too broadly and it interprets its guidelines inconsistently.

Too often it tries to be evangelical. It isn’t the local vicar.’

A senior marketer at one of the UK’s biggest advertisers shares the

disquiet. ‘Some of the letters we get from the ASA asking us to

substantiate our advertising claims are downright amateurish and some of

its decisions flabbergast us,’ he says.

Alderson refutes such charges. ‘Our staff training is very good and

their experience is broad,’ she replies. ‘It’s not up to individual case

officers to make a judgment and advertisers can have any matter referred

to a panel made up of their industry peers.’

Much of the controversy revolves around where the ASA’s soul reposes.

Critics claim it has become remote from and insensitive to the business

that gave birth to it. The ASA retorts that it is in nobody’s pocket and

would lose public confidence if it was.

The lid finally blew off the pressure cooker of ASA criticism in April,

when the authority ordered Live TV, Mirror Group’s cable channel, to

pull a print ad in which Paul Gascoigne appeared to be kissing the

Princess of Wales.

Normally that would have been the end of the matter. But Kelvin

MacKenzie, Mirror TV’s managing director, refused to lie down. The Young

and Rubicam ad appeared with Will Carling substituted for Gazza,

MacKenzie branded the ASA’s decision ‘arcane’ and ‘outdated’ and defied

it to do its worst.

In reality, its worst doesn’t amount to much. The watchdog has few

teeth, prompting a suggestion by Alasdair Ritchie, TBWA’s chief

executive, for a new body comprising agency and client representatives

working alongside the ASA with the industry’s approval and empowered to

levy fines of up to pounds 50,000 on agencies overstepping the mark


How much industry charges of high-handedness against the ASA are

connected with the hands-on style of Lord Rodgers, its chairman, is a

moot point. The one-time Labour minister arrived early last year vowing

to be more than a mere figurehead, sparking a reported demarcation

dispute with his director-general.

Alderson waves her new four-year contract to quash resignation talk. But

speculation is rife that Rodgers’ term of office may not be renewed by

Brian Nicholson, chairman of the Advertising Standards Board of Finance,

when it expires in 1999.

Asked about her alleged uneasy peace with Rodgers, Alderson is

enigmatic. ‘We sail in calm waters,’ she says.

Meanwhile, Rodgers must help dig the ASA and the Committee of

Advertising Practice out of the mire into which the row over political

advertising has plunged them. Even John Hooper, director-general of the

Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, who chaired the review

panel that drew up the rules, acknowledges they have to be changed.

‘We’ve made a rod for our own backs,’ he says.

Nevertheless, he and other industry leaders such as Winston Fletcher,

the Advertising Association chairman, declare their unswerving support

for the ASA. ‘It’s doing a splendid job,’ Fletcher insists.

Private grumbles there may be a-plenty. But with the prospect of an

incoming Labour government that may take a less relaxed view about self-

regulation, the ASA has the satisfaction of knowing that few within

advertising will dare rock its boat too hard.

Opinion, page 25


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