OPINION: PERSPECTIVE - The ASA’s ruling on the ToothKind case is contentious stuff

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 Ribena ToothKind.

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

Ribena ToothKind.



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

overturned.



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.



john.tylee@haynet.com.



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