Editorial: Protecting the public and ad freedoms will test ASA

How alarmed should the marcoms industry be that the number of complaints made to the Advertising Standards Authority last year reached record levels?

On the face of it, the figures give cause for some unease, particularly because almost half of the complaints were about misleading claims. After all this time, surely those in the ad business aren't regaining their old reputation as hucksters and snake oil salesmen?

If the 26,433 complaints are the most the ASA has ever received in a single year, it probably has more to do with the fact that people are exposed to advertising from an ever-growing number of delivery channels. What's more, advertising will continue to attract close scrutiny as long as its alleged role in fuelling binge-drinking (complaints about alcohol ads were up 44 per cent last year), gambling and obesity remains the subject of intense debate.

Nevertheless, while the rise in complaints can be largely explained, there's no cause for complacency. Recession has bred a plethora of price-comparison advertising as companies battle for market share and customer loyalty.

With the number of price-comparison complaints jumping 14 per cent last year, and a further increase predicted for 2009, it's clear that this is an area in which the ASA will need to closely monitor a lot of complex claims if public trust in self-regulation is not to be eroded.

As if all that isn't enough, there are other disturbing straws in the wind. The internet is now beaten only by TV in the number of complaints it attracts - its massive growth having led to a 300 per cent increase in the number of complaints over the past five years.

Worryingly, 65 per cent of complaints about internet claims made to the ASA last year fell outside its remit because they were made on company websites. Extending the ASA's authority to such sites may be like opening a can of worms - but there can be little doubt the issue will have to be confronted.