EDITORIAL: EU proposal treats advertising badly

Summertime and everybody is getting hot under the collar about the latest crude and ill-thought attempt by Brussels legislators to put advertising to rights.

The reason is a surprise proposal by the European Union's social affairs commissioner, Anna Diamantopoulou, to introduce a voluntary code oulawing sexual discrimination and stereotyping in advertising and media. Agencies, advertisers and media owners have certainly been caught on the hop. Mainly because the proposals are tucked away in a draft law which, for the most part, suggests a series of entirely welcome measures to end sexual discrimination.

Who would take issue with the draft's contention that there's no place for advertising which affronts human dignity? It's at this point, however, that the plans lose touch with reality and expose flaws caused by drafters who may know a lot about education and taxation but very little about how advertising works.

Thank goodness Diamantopoulou has backtracked on the preposterous idea that a court should have the power to rule whether or not an ad is guilty of sexual stereotyping. A lumbering legal process couldn't possibly match the relatively speedy resolution of complaints that the self-regulation system provides. Nor does the judiciary's track record suggest it is well attuned to changing public attitudes and tastes. And how can a court give a verdict on something so subjective? Is the original "hello boys" Wonderbra as an affront to female dignity or a reasonable way to showcase the product? It depends who you ask.

In fact, only 6 per cent of complaints about ads across Europe concern sexual stereotyping. And a rigorous vetting system by the BACC in the UK usually ensures sexually contentious ads never get beyond script stage. Moreover, the legal back-ups already exist in Britain where those that police the self-regulatory system already have the power to alert the Office of Fair Trading to the activities of rogue advertisers.

Chances are, though, that the Diamantopoulou initiative will be scuppered as much by European Commission internal politics as by the activities of lobbyists. Her remit doesn't extend to TV and her concerns are likely to be addressed in the soon-to-be-completed five-yearly review of the TV Without Frontiers directive. Other EU legislators won't take kindly to a signal that they aren't doing their jobs. Nevertheless, this highlights how easy it is for advertising to be included almost as an afterthought in EU regulations and how industry lobbyists cannot afford to ignore what may appear to be a storm in a teacup.