Editorial: ASA has to define its role following junk-food ruling

Having charge of the Advertising Standards Authority - as its new chairman, Chris Smith, will find out - can be a thankless task.

Politicians and the public pay little heed to the ASA as it quietly carries out its job of protecting consumers from advertising excess. But let one rogue ad slip through (as one will do from time to time) and the red-tops pounce, a wave of public outrage is whipped up and a few MPs react in their usual knee-jerk fashion by declaring the ASA toothless and demanding a big stick be taken to the miscreants.

Smith is right to say people need to be made more aware of what the ASA is and what it does (page 20). It's more than two years since the ASA's remit was enlarged to include the policing of TV advertising and creating a "one-stop shop" for complaints. Yet it's impossible to escape the fact that it still has a huge education job to do in Whitehall and beyond.

It is something Smith seems well equipped to do. As a former MP and minister, his face is familiar to thousands of people. Moreover, he is not only liked and respected by the ad industry, but knows his way around the corridors of power and the right ears in which to whisper.

Indeed, it is an indication of how relentlessly the protectors of the self-regulation system have to work to keep ministers onside that the appointment of an ex-politician to the ASA should closely follow that of Baroness Peta Buscombe, the former Tory media spokesperson in the Lords, to be the next boss of the Advertising Association.

Smith will have his work cut out. The Ofcom clampdown on junk-food advertising is an over-reaction to demands from pressure groups, and is bound to lead to allegations that the regulator has not been brave enough to take a rational stand against Labour's creeping nanny state.

With the new rules full of oddities about which TV programmes can surround themselves by ads for snack foods and fizzy drinks and those which cannot, the ASA is in danger of becoming a "football" to be kicked by everybody.

Add to that the need to bring order to the "bandit country" of the internet, where the dividing line between ads and editorial becomes harder to define, and the scale of Smith's challenge is obvious. He will earn his £120,000 a year.

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