Opinion: Perspective - Will web content undermine ASA's effectiveness?

Adland has been annoying people rather more than usual over the past 12 months: 24,192 complaints, up by almost 8 per cent, and a record 14,080 ads complained about.

It's the Advertising Standards Authority's annual report, always meaty reading for adwatchers. This year's tally of complaints is the usual sort of stuff, just more of it. Sex, violence, the depiction of race. Oh, and there's a new subject to irritate the irritable: environmental claims.

Almost half of all complaints were about misleading ads, although most of those were about ads in non-broadcast media. Broadcast media, though, drew most complaints about offensive ads.

The portrayal of violence is always a trigger and complaints about violent images were twice as high as last year, which is surprising. Given the social concerns about gun crime and the rise in lethal weapon attacks on young people, it's amazing that any advertisers have used this sort of imagery in a way that could be considered offensive. But they did.

Are violent images justified if they're for a "good" cause? The most complained-about ad of the year came from a government department. The Department of Health's anti-smoking campaign - remember those fish hooks? - drew 774 complaints that it was offensive, frightening and distressing. The ASA clearly did not agree that the weight of the smoking problem over-ruled the offensiveness of the imagery, at least when children were likely to be watching, and upheld the complaints. The trouble is that there have been so many excellent anti-smoking ads over the year, finding something new and impactful to say is a real challenge.

JWT really couldn't understand why Campaign obsessed about the reaction to its Trident chewing- gum commercial last year. But as it turns out, the public agreed with us. It was the second most complained-about ad of the year and although the ASA considered that the ads did not incite racial discrimination (as did we), it did acknowledge that they caused offence and upheld the complaints.

Not surprisingly, TV was the most complained-about medium, notching up almost 10,000 complaints, 15 per cent higher than last year. Since every TV ad is pre-vetted by the BACC to ensure it complies with taste and decency codes, 10,000 complaints sounds like the system's failing somewhere along the line. But considering the sheer quantity of TV ads, broadcast across hundreds of channels, 10,000 complaints is not so surprising for the most powerful of media.

And guess what was the second most complained- about medium? Easy. The web. Except that more than 70 per cent of complaints about web advertising were actually about web content, and the ASA has no remit over that.

And that, surely, is the most important bit of this whole report. Any advertiser that really wants to shock or surprise us can do a fine job of bypassing regulated media at the moment by going straight to a website, where they have free rein.

Most of the complaints about web content revolved around truth, accuracy, misleadingness and the pricing and availability of goods. They're the sort of issues that the ASA is dealing with in paid-for media every day and it's increasingly anomalous - and potentially dangerous - that there's no real policing of wider web content. The ASA is holding talks with the Advertising Association about how to ensure web content is as "responsible" as the advertising around it, but as yet, there's no resolution.

The ASA does a fantastic job of ensuring the ad industry self-regulates effectively and responsibility. But in the current anti-advertising climate there's no room for a chink in the industry's armour. It's vital that web content is brought in line with the sort of codes of conduct imposed on other forms of commercial communication if the industry is to stave off further threats to its freedoms.