When Radio 4’s PM programme decided to run a piece on political
correctness in advertising last month, calling Caroline Crawford seemed
the most natural thing to do. The loquacious communications director of
the Advertising Standards Authority is used to fielding questions from
journalists and broadcasters. Always well briefed and with the facts at
her fingertips, she never fails to return a call with a quotable
So what better person to offer some carefully chosen words about Ford’s
withdrawal of a commercial spoofing the Full Monty for fear of sparking
a race row?
Well maybe. Because for an influential body of opinion within the
industry, Crawford’s participation only reinforces the belief
that the ASA has evolved into a mouthpiece for the self-regulatory
system it was meant only to police.
It’s a situation that has happened more by accident than design and many
claim the ASA has only been filling a void created by shortcomings
This is, perhaps, only natural given that the watchdog body’s title
bestows on it a status and credibility that gets it listened to by
What’s more, its media-friendliness invariably makes it the first port
of call for hacks, few of whom will have heard either of the Committee
of Advertising Practice, which makes the rules for the ASA to enforce,
or the Advertising Standards Board of Finance, which provides the ASA’s
funds and appoints its chairman.
Small wonder, therefore, that the role and powers of the ASA cause
widespread confusion among the media and politicians who refer to the
’ASA codes’ in the mistaken belief that the authority is answerable only
Now the industry wants to reassert its grip on a system it believes is
spinning out of its control by putting ASBOF, representing its most
important organisations, firmly back in the driving seat (Campaign, last
The sensitivity of the issue has caused it to be shrouded in total
secrecy until now. So much so that briefing papers circulating between
trade bodies have emphasised the necessity for it not to be discussed
This is hardly surprising. The ASA may not be perfect but the industry
regards it as infinitely preferable to imposed regulation either by
Whitehall or Brussels. It was for that reason that advertising
luminaries rallied to its defence in the autumn of 1996 after it had
attracted some of the most savage criticism in its history. And also why
today they want to be seen to be doing nothing that will lead the
Government to believe they are losing faith in it.
Nevertheless, there is growing recognition within the Advertising
Association, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and the
Incorporated Society of British Advertisers that the system cannot
continue to operate as it does with the ASA having assumed a role never
intended for it.
’There’s a feeling that the industry has lost control of the system,’ an
insider says. ’The ASA has become its representative voice.’
Industry leaders want ASBOF, under the leadership of a full-time
executive director, to reclaim the function originally intended for it
when it was established in the 60s as a policy-making body and industry
voice with the ASA and the CAP as its two executive arms.
The aim is to redress the balance of power and influence which has
shifted in recent years towards the ASA and ensure that, by paying the
piper, ASBOF will be seen to call the tune. ’There’s a feeling that the
system is out of balance,’ John Hooper, ISBA’s director-general and a
former CAP chairman, says. ’We need to reinforce our commitment to
Behind the initiative is the belief that the upcoming potential
challenges to the ASA cannot be confronted properly if the
self-regulation system is in disarray.
The proposed Competition Bill threatens to render the ASA codes and copy
clearance procedures unlawful while the incorporation of the European
Convention of Human Rights into British law may pave the way for more
legal disputes involving ASA rulings. ’These are important policy
concerns,’ Andrew Brown, the AA’s director-general says. ’We need a
forum in which they can be discussed.’
The impetus for reform has been accelerated by disquiet over specific
areas of ASA activity. Some are worried about the way the authority, set
up to protect consumer interests, has been drawn in to referee public
slanging matches between rival advertisers. New arrangements would allow
heads to be knocked together behind closed doors with both parties bound
by a private agreement.
The other major worry concerns the ASA’s lack of an independent appeals
procedure. At present all appeals are considered by the ASA’s chairman,
Lord Rodgers, a situation even he is said to recognise as
The ASA’s 1996 summer of discontent was marked by a series of refusals
by aggrieved advertisers to take ASA rulings lying down. And as markets
become more competitive and companies more litigious, there is a feeling
that ASBOF could take some of the heat out of the situation by becoming
the ASA’s ’court of appeal’.
Officially, the ASA is phlegmatic about having to stick to its knitting.
’We’re aware of the proposals but it’s up to the industry to discuss
them,’ Crawford says.
Others believe there will be little enthusiasm within the ASA for what
may be in store. ’It won’t be very keen about not being able to run the
show in the way it does at the moment,’ a trade body source declares.
’But we still don’t know if anyone has got the bottle to fire the
starting gun on all this.’