Editorial: Self-regulation works and should be retained

At a time when lobby groups seem to be queuing up to kick it, Britain's self-regulatory system for advertising continues to serve consumers well. Indeed, statistics compiled by the Advertising Standards Authority, which polices the system, attest to the idea that it remains robust, responsive and flexible in a way that no statutory system could match.

For a start, it provides a useful measurement of the constantly changing tide of public attitudes. Last year, it was same-sex kissing, violent imagery and the trivialisation of religion that seemed to upset people the most.

The ability of the system to identify concerns gives advertisers and their agencies early warning about areas into which they should proceed with caution.

But what other conclusions can be drawn from the ASA's research? One is that the challenge posed to industry watchdogs by the web looks like being an ever-growing problem. The fact that a record number of ads complained about last year (12,842) was fuelled mostly by rogue internet ads emphasises the need for an effective policing system.

It's important to keep the ASA's findings in perspective. The number of complaints fell by 14.5 per cent to just 22,429. Set against the number of commercial messages that bombard consumers every day, this is tiny. And this at a time when making a complaint to the ASA has never been easier.

Moreover, the figures provide more evidence of how controversy can feed upon itself and how clever hype can turn a banned ad into a PR triumph. How else to explain why a press ad for the Gay Police Federation featuring a Bible next to a pool of blood, which appeared just once in The Independent's Diversity supplement, should have attracted more complaints (553) than any other ad from last year.

Of course, there will always be chances for the ASA's statistics to be distorted, either by advertisers deliberately courting controversy or by special-interest groups pushing their members to complain about an ad not to their liking.

But if this is part of the price of preserving self-regulation, most within adland would think it is one worth paying.