When the Advertising Standards Authority was conceived 40 years ago
its premise was simple: protect the consumer from dishonest and
But it seems the ASA is having to do this with one arm tied behind its
back, thanks to the distracting number of complaints from one advertiser
Of all the complaints received by the ASA, about one in ten comes from
an advertiser, and it's suggested that not all of these are legitimate
complaints about clear breaches of regulations. As the ASA's chairman,
Lord Borrie, points out, there's a very real danger that the ASA's whole
system of self-regulation is open to hijack from advertisers wishing to
further their own marketing strategies.
Abuse of the system not only puts a brake on the ASA's ability to deal
with genuine complaints, but threatens the very fabric of
Of course advertisers should have a mechanism for legitimate complaint
against ads that result in unfair competition. While the ASA's founding
principle is consumer protection, it has a duty of care to
But when these advertiser complaints are filed, they often require a
greater degree of investigation - references to the Committee of
Advertising Practice panels, appeals to an independent review body, and
so on, diverting the ASA from the role it performs in the interests of
self-regulation: protecting consumer interests.
Such distractions are costly and immensely time-consuming and - this is
the real nub of the issue - the more industry complaints to adjudicate
on, the less the ASA is able to deal effectively with complaints from
consumers. If it can't perform this role, then the notion of
self-regulation comes under siege.
The ASA's self-regulation is an alternative to state-regulated
If advertisers fail to support the ASA, then advertising freedom itself
is in question.
Over the past 40 years the ASA has done a fine job of protecting
consumers from abuse of the advertising process. It would be a crime if
its powers are eroded by the unnecessary distractions of
All advertisers have a stake in ensuring this never happens; it's time
that stake was valued above individual short-term commercial interests.