If truth is always war’s first casualty, I don’t give it much hope
of surviving hostilities between SmithKline Beecham and the
self-appointed guardians of public health over the advertising for
In this battle of words, truth has proved to be not just fragile but
elusive. One moment, it is hidden under a pile of hyperbole, the next it
is obscured by a mountain of research data.
’The truth is what we say it is,’ a smart-arsed lawyer in ITV’s new
drama series In Defence remarks. It’s an observation applying to all
combatants in the ToothKind dispute and highlighting the impossible task
that the Advertising Standards Authority has faced.
Forced to pass judgment on whether or not what SmithKline says about
Ribena ToothKind’s effect on children’s teeth is sustainable, the ASA
finds itself stuck between a rock and a hard place.
The case is a hospital pass for the watchdog and may turn out to be one
of the most significant on which it has had to rule. Whatever conclusion
it reached was bound to provoke outrage and it’s no surprise that
SmithKline has applied to the High Court to get the decision against it
For the ruling strikes at the very heart of the product. Not encouraging
tooth decay is its raison d’etre. Its name and its ad campaign is based
on that premise. It if can’t advertise itself in this way, it might as
well not exist.
True, the ASA’s jurisdiction is confined to print advertising. But its
verdict has alerted the Independent Television Commission, which knows
that the ASA’s predicament today may be its own tomorrow. Were the
Ribena ToothKind TV campaign to suffer a similar fate, the millions of
pounds worth of marketing support for the brand will have been money
down the toilet.
Most important, though, is what this verdict says about the challenges
facing the ASA as it undertakes the biggest ever review of its working
methods and some of the weaknesses of self-regulation.
The system has always been bedevilled by its own insecurity. Now, the
ASA must prove its impartiality beyond doubt. It can only do that if it
feels it doesn’t have to keep showing its teeth to one-issue and highly
vocal lobbyists such as Action & Information on Sugars, SmithKline’s
bete noire and a self-regulation sceptic.
The Ribena ToothKind verdict also calls into question the ASA’s use of
expert opinion, as advertising rows about health claims indicate the
increasingly complex job of deciding what constitutes a fair claim.
Indeed, the ToothKind affair may be prophetic, with each camp submitting
research to back their cases and the ASA limited in its ability to get
an impartial view in a highly specialised area where almost every expert
is also a consultant.
Experts are just as likely to tell one side the cup is half full as the
other that it’s half empty. If the ASA can’t pin down the truth, it
shouldn’t seek to impose its own version of it.