Opinion: Perspective - Finally, adland gets a say in ASA appeals process

Last year, almost 2,500 ads had to be changed or withdrawn as a result of people complaining to the Advertising Standards Authority.

In some cases, that meant a quick, cheap tweak to an ad. Fair enough, no harm done. In others - such as the ads for Ladbrokescasino.com - it meant the wholesale withdrawal of a commercial. Again fair enough, perhaps, but plenty of harm done. Specifically financially, if it's a TV commercial we're talking about.

No advertiser can afford the withdrawal of an expensive TV ad, at least not unless you consider that the PR that follows an ad ban is adequate compensation for the forced withdrawal of a commercial that cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to make.

Wasted production costs could top £1 million, then there's the cost of media that's been planned and booked. And if the advertiser in question has blown its ad budget on a commercial that it can't run, the brand itself could suffer significant commercial damage from being off-air until the next marketing budget is released.

The Clearcast pre-vetting system (time-consuming, and with an attendant cost) is designed to ensure that broadcast ads don't make it to a public airing if there's an obvious fouling of the rules. Mostly, it works.

But sometimes it doesn't. And then you're into the realms of wasted money, and time, and brand equity. All for an adjudication that you might consider inappropriate or unfair.

But the current regulatory process is being reviewed and the ad industry has until 19 June to make its opinions heard. Creatives love to moan about the current system, and kick against rulings that don't go their way. So here's the chance to change the way things are done.

The industry law firm Lewis Silkin, which knows more than most about the current system, its strengths and flaws, is clear what's needed: a reform of the appeals process (page 2). There's already an appeal system, of course. But it's having to work harder than ever.

In the ASA's annual report, Sir John Caines, the independent reviewer, says he had 49 requests for reviews of ASA rulings last year, an increase of 30 per cent on the previous year. Ten requests to review rulings on non-broadcast ads resulted in the reversal or revision of the ASA's decisions. Of the eight reviews of rulings on broadcast ads, none of the ASA's decisions were overturned.

Caines sounds like he's doing his best. But he admits: "I have been unable to maintain in 2008 the record average speed of turnaround of 27 calendar days, which I achieved in 2007." Reading his piece in the report about the review process, you cannot help but imagine an old-fashioned system without the resources (technical and human) to handle reviews at a speed and in a manner appropriate to the digital age.

Of course, the ASA does a fine job of self-regulating the industry. Of course, the current appeal process has the best intentions and takes its job as seriously as anyone would wish.

But really, the criteria on which complaints are passed for full review and the levels of input advertisers are allowed in the review process needs updating. And with some reviews taking about 85 days to complete, it appears that a new approach is required for the digital media age when marketers are used to moving swiftly and brand fortunes can change overnight.

Thinkbox, the television marketing body, is about to launch a new advertising campaign (page 3). Naturally, it's an ad campaign advertising television. And, naturally enough, it's a television ad.

It references some of the best-loved commercials of the past 30 years. But I wonder how many TV ads that are shown over the next few years will really stand that sort of test of time.

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