OPINION: CAP should steer clear of subjective decisions

Sorry seems to be the hardest word and the Committee of Advertising Practice’s humble-pie eating over the Barnardo’s ad depicting a baby as a heroin user is a generous gesture.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word and the Committee of Advertising

Practice’s humble-pie eating over the Barnardo’s ad depicting a baby as

a heroin user is a generous gesture.



Having had the rug whipped from under him by the Advertising Standards

Authority, which rejected all complaints against the ad, Andrew Brown,

the CAP chairman, is to be commended for his unprompted public apology

when he could have sat silently on his hands.



His decisive action has helped spike the guns of self-regulation’s

critics who would use the incident as ammunition. It also proves that

such bloomers are part of the price to be paid for a self-regulatory

system.



Nevertheless, the fact remains that the CAP’s warning to newspapers not

to carry the ad following its publication in Campaign was too hasty and

a miscalculation of public attitudes.



The CAP’s warning was certainly enough to put the wind up the Daily Mail

and The Telegraph, both of which refused to carry the ad. Others,

however, who thought the creative treatment compelling and justified,

found that most readers thought so too and the number of objections to

it could be counted on the fingers of one hand.



It is easy for regulatory bodies to be wise after the event and knowing

where to draw the line - particularly in the case of headline-hunting

charities pushing creativity to the limits of public tolerance - is

difficult.



This time, though, the CAP drew the line in the wrong place and its

ensuing embarrassment ought to serve as a warning to it not to stray

outside its areas of expertise.



It is one thing to help agencies and clients avoid potential problems

with the ASA by advising on advertising claims that may be misleading or

breach the CAP’s own rules on competitiveness.



It’s quite another to extend that advice beyond the letter of its rules

and its remit and into subjective matters on which the ASA council, with

its spread of lay and professional members, is better equipped to pass

judgment.



Problems arise when CAP advice becomes a mixture of fact and

opinion.



While this may be of little consequence to charities, which will wring

every drop of publicity out of their clashes with advertising’s

rulemakers, the effect on commercial advertisers could be damaging.