Editorial: Violent virals could pose a big headache for ASA

On the face of it, the decision by the Advertising Standards Authority to turn its attention to the use of violence in ads seems curious.

It's not as if the issue is high on the agenda of the Government, which seems more interested in protecting children from violent video games and internet content. And what's more, the handful of recent ads with violent undertones have been quickly pulled off the air.

So is the ASA making a fuss over nothing? Not necessarily. Surveys conducted by the watchdog over a number of years have consistently shown that people get more upset about violence in ads than about taste and decency.

By tackling the violence question, the ASA is saying it is in tune with the public mood. And in taking up an uncontentious issue, on which there is broad consensus, it shows a willingness to work with ministers with whom it doesn't always see eye to eye. But while these things are important, the ASA probe will only be seen as a success if it tackles the thorny issue of violence in virals. Viral ads have to "shout" to get distributed, and violent ones are not uncommon.

But what is a viral ad? The Committee of Advertising Practice defines it as "an e-mail, text or other non-broadcast marketing message designed to stimulate circulation by recipients and to generate commercial or reputational benefits for the advertiser". All very well in theory, but the dividing line between a viral and a piece of editorial (which is outside the ASA's remit) is becoming ever more blurred.

The ASA could use its investigation as a means of extending its control over virals. But this will infuriate newspaper groups fearful a dangerous precedent could be set, which could have serious implications for editorial freedom.

Of course, the viral craze may run out of stream as more advertisers pile in and people are turned off by a bombardment of bland messages. But that day doesn't look like coming soon. In the meantime, greater clarity in the rules is needed. Without it, advertising's ability to police itself will again be brought into question.