The Advertising Standards Authority celebrates its 35th anniversary
this week. As it enters middle age, the watchdog is under attack as
never before - accused by some of being an aggressive beast that savages
business freedoms while others, the Consumer’s Association in
particular, view it as the toothless pet of commercial interests.
Director-general Matti Alderson rejects talk of a mid-life crisis at the
ASA. ’We are in no doubt about what we are, what our role is and where
we are going,’ she says. ’The fact that we are getting so much flak from
both sides is actually a mark of our success. It means that we are
striking a balance between protecting the consumer, which is our first
duty, while infringing as little as possible on commercial freedom.’
The ASA may be clear about its role and direction but perhaps the
confusion in society at large results from the contradictions and
complications that surrounded its birth.
It was set up in 1962 as an independent body by the advertising industry
in response to the increasing influence of television and the embryonic
consumer movement. Its role was (and remains) to enforce the Code of
Advertising Practice which had been produced by the industry a year
In other words the ASA is an independent organisation representing the
consumer, funded by the advertising industry (through a 0.1% levy on ad
spends) to enforce a code developed by the advertising industry. It has
no government backing and only a quasi-legal status. It is hardly
surprising that many within the industry are unclear where its first
duty lies and many outside the industry doubt its independence.
This confusion is made worse by the fact that its apparently simple
mission - to ensure that all non-broadcast advertisements in the UK are
legal, decent, honest and truthful - is a target that has been
constantly moving and fragmenting, sometimes with frightening speed,
throughout its life.
For instance, if in 1962 you had wanted to advertise the life-enhancing
qualities of your heavy rolling tobacco with the copyline ’Women like a
good shag’, quite likely no one would have even raised an eyebrow.
You would merely have had to be able to prove that women really are
partial to coarsely shredded smoking mixture, if anyone challenged your
It wasn’t until 1975 that rules were introduced to say that smoking
could not be associated with social, sexual or romantic success.
The other major sector in which the facts have changed is alcohol. In
the early 60s it was still possible for the makers of Mackesons stout to
claim ’It looks good, it tastes good, and by golly it does you
And hardly an eye would be raised at the suggestions by advertisers that
vodka is a great aid to your love life. The ASA surrounds alcohol ads
with a whole battery of rules and regulations, particularly designed to
stop alcohol brands targeting young drinkers.
There have, however, been some constants in the ASA’s complaints
Throughout its 35 years it has struggled against waves of ads making
unsubstantiated claims for outlandish remedies and nostrums. Perhaps
this is the area in which demands for a statutory regulatory body are
For despite the fact that of the nine referrals to the Office Of Fair
Trading (the ASA’s ultimate sanction) made since 1988, six were for
health and slimming products, the flood of misleading ads continues.
On the other hand, as Alderson points out: ’No company has been referred
twice and if a company really doesn’t care whether it breaks the rules,
even the law won’t stop it.’
But policing these products is merely a technical matter, albeit
complex, of gathering evidence and enforcing judgments. So much for
’legal’, ’honest’ and ’truthful’. The really thorny issue, the one which
most concerns the population at large is ’decency’, particularly in
relation to the portrayal of women and religion.
The rules state that ads should not cause ’serious or widespread
offence.’ So 30 years ago any amount of sexism could go unchallenged -
it was perfectly acceptable for cosmetics company Max Factor to show a
woman squirming against a five foot lipstick phallus and for another to
take a firm grip of an MG’s hand brake. But today blatant sexism is
On the other hand, the ASA now accepts that a different tone of
advertising may be appropriate for some media. Club 18-30, for example,
has now shifted its ’shock’ advertising from posters to magazines
The real problem for the ASA is that there is no longer a moral
consensus in society. Standards of decency are constantly changing and
they change at different rates among different sections of the
This explains the apparent arbitrary nature of many ASA decisions as it
attempts to tread an imaginary middle line that no other body in society
has to negotiate.
According to research, admittedly the ASA’s, most consumers think that
the ASA is doing a reasonable job. While it is true that it could
tighten up some of its procedures, particularly on how it receives
complaints and it could be given more teeth to make its sanctions work
better, there is little evidence that it is not fulfilling the factual
part of its brief very well.
Advertising is a reflection of the political and social tone of the
It’s easy to look back at ads from the 60s and chuckle over their gauche
sexual references, with the wisdom of hindsight. That is why the ASA’s
job will always be an impossible one; seeking to find what is acceptable
and unacceptable in the fluid movement of morality and marketing.
Health: Advertisers must now prove the claims made by their ads.
The ASA would demand convincing evidence that Vigor’s Horse Action
Saddle cured gout and corpulence. Products which claim to improve health
must also now be licensed
Cigarettes: Guidelines drawn up in 1975 by the ASA, Department of Health
and the tobacco industry require that cigarettes should not be
associated with sexual success or inspire admiration, like this 1931
Taste and decency: The phallic imagery of this 60s Max Factor ad would
be considered offensive today. Modern day advertising should not offend
consumers on the grounds of sex, religion or race
Children: The use of children in ads is now strictly regulated.
The ASA requires advertisers to take a responsible attitude to children
- a principle this 50s 7-Up ad clearly disregards
Alcohol: In 1975 the industry introduced new codes to prevent alcohol
being advertised in an irresponsible way, like this 1970 ad for Cossack
Modern times: 90s advertisers have tested the ASA’s taste and decency
guidelines to the limit. In 1995 it received around 500 complaints about
Club 18-30’s series of press and poster ads featuring copylines like
’Beaver Espana’, ’The Summer of 69’ and ’Discover your erogenous zone’.
The ASA, noting that they caused widespread offence, ruled that the ads
irresponsibly advocated sexual and alcoholic excess
Shock tactics: The ASA logged 800 complaints for Benetton’s 1991 ’Baby’
ad - more than for any ad ever run before. The ASA upheld the complaints
on the grounds of taste and decency and some media owners boycotted the