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’.