OPINION: Self-regulation is the best way to safeguard creativity

Poster ads might be attracting a rising number of complaints but Matti Alderson of the ASA argues against rogue ads being used to criticise the industry as a whole

Poster ads might be attracting a rising number of complaints but Matti

Alderson of the ASA argues against rogue ads being used to criticise the

industry as a whole

There must be something in the beverage served in Soho bars that creates

a tendency in the business to succumb to bouts of shortsightedness (I’m

Only a Punter but...Campaign, 14 June).

So, a handful of controversial poster campaigns that accumulate more

than their fair share of column inches suggests the industry is wide-

eyed with hypocrisy.

The fact that a staggering 98 per cent of posters (for newspapers and

magazines the figure is 96 per cent) comply with the industry’s codes

(the Advertising Standards Authority’s own research, November 1995)

demonstrates that there is a vast difference between knowing how to

manipulate the self-regulatory system and actually wilfully exploiting

it for personal or corporate gain.

‘Ninety-eight per cent compliance levels on our streets’ would be a

dream headline for law enforcers the length and breadth of the UK.

Should we be holding up the 2 per cent of offending posters as

irrefutable evidence that self-regulation isn’t working and that it

should, by implication, be scrapped? This is about as sensible as

suggesting the abolition of all laws on the grounds that people break


The ASA’s annual report for 1995 drew attention to a 124 per cent

increase in complaints against posters; but although the number of

people who complained went up, the number of ads complained about

remained substantially the same.

We said at the time that the public was clearly expressing an increased

level of disquiet about images that confront them uninvited, and we put

much of the anxiety down to the fact that certain posters forced parents

into discussing with their children things they were unwilling, or not

ready, to discuss.

So, are these findings sinister? Do they hint at a conspiracy within the

industry to bring self-regulation to its knees under the weight of ill-

gotten column inches?

The answer is clearly no. All they tell us is that some 110,000 poster

sites around the UK spawned 13 campaigns during 1995 that were

considered to have no place in our largely liberal society.

What then should be the ASA’s role? We certainly won’t be positioned on

every street corner like some modern-day gatekeeper waving through the

pure and castigating the cynical.

The system already works so effectively that companies can’t escape

regulation. (Incidentally, complaints about the poster for the film,

Disclosure, referred to by the ‘Punter’’, weren’t upheld.)

The industry is moving towards tightening up the pre-vetting of problem

advertisers but ultimate responsibility rests with individual sectors

and practitioners; advertisers, then agencies and media owners - the

people who set the codes and agree to follow them. It’s a rather obvious

truth, but enlightened self-interest is what self-regulation means.

Looking to the future, any industry decision that the self-regulatory

system is too hot to handle will prompt legislative measures whose grip

will strangle the very creativity that enables the majority of people in

the business to produce entertaining and responsible advertising.

Most people working in advertising and the media want to protect the

industry from swingeing intervention. They should ponder the following


Where is the evidence that more than a tiny minority are abusing the

system? What action will they take to protect themselves against such


And, if the system is as flawed as one person would have us believe, how

has it managed to deflect government intervention for 35 years, and

become the model for self-regulatory systems the world over? Not, I

would contend, with the kind of cynicism expressed by the ‘Punter’.