I recently came to the end of my six-year term on the council of the Advertising Standards Authority. Every week for those six years, I had to look at a bunch of ads which were in some way controversial and decide whether I agreed with what the executives had said about them being in some way in breach of the advertising codes. This involved a lot of detail but what it came down to in the end was whether they could be said to be legal, decent, honest and truthful.
Hardly any of the thousands of ads I looked at over those six years came from magazines. There weren’t even all that many that were press ads. The majority of them were different species of moving picture ad, either on television or online. The controversial ones tended to be those that dealt in controversial products, such as medicines, gambling, children’s food, payday loans and those that play upon body image.
It’s relatively easy to police mainstream TV because TV advertising is still too expensive for people to take the risk of being banned from the airwaves. The growth area for complaints during my watch was digital. Here, some people aren’t aware that they have to obey the codes every bit as much as they might do if they were on paper or the radio. Here, there’s a feeling that since everybody says the internet is still the wild west that they can shoot up the saloons without risking the displeasure of the sheriff. Here, there’s insufficient understanding of the fact that if you decide to start using your website to sell your products or services, you’re every bit as much in the advertising game as Unilever or Go Compare.
Whereas the likes of Channel 4, Hearst and the Telegraph Group recognise and support the system of advertising self-regulation of which the ASA is part, there’s a feeling that the new tech overlords such as Facebook and / or Amazon are very keen to assure everyone that they just provide the platforms for people to publish on and don’t have to bear the responsibilities that are traditionally borne by publishers.
The overwhelming majority of advertisers and media owners take their responsibilities seriously and recognise that staying the right side of the codes is in the interests of not just the public but the advertisers themselves. It’s a system that works very well. So far. When I joined the ASA council six years ago, I was asked what I thought was the greatest potential hazard to the advertising business. I said that advertisers appeared to be getting bored with adverts that were clearly identifiable as such and that they were increasingly apt to disguise their intentions. I felt that the public would soon get irritated if they felt the wool was being pulled over their eyes. This has proved to be the case and will continue to be the case. At which point one of those MPs who occasionally stand up in the House and say that there ought to be statutory regulation will start gaining support and the next thing we know, advertisers will have the law on them, which won’t be in anyone’s interests.
The most controversial piece of advertising of the last few years … was a claim on the side of a bus.
As seen on a bus
If they do start to look closely at government regulation, one of the first things they’ll have to deal with is political advertising, which currently falls outside the ASA’s remit. The most controversial piece of advertising of the last few years, more controversial even than the one that challenged women to be “beach body ready”, more controversial than all the works of Paddy Power’s mischief factory, only appeared very briefly. It was a claim on the side of a bus about how much money we could spend on the National Health if we withdrew from the European Union. No payment to a media organisation was involved there. In fact it was free media that took that misleading message and placed it in front of such a massive audience; by the time one set of people had got round to marshalling their objections, another set of people had taken its message to heart and were spreading it as far and wide as they could as quickly as they could.
Politicians used to be accused of practising the more disreputable arts of Madison Avenue and Charlotte Street. That’s underselling the calculated dishonesty of a few of them. No commercial organisation either side of the Atlantic would have dared propagate such claims, let alone the kind of outright lies which make up the average live blurt from the current president of the United States.
Much as journalism used to be practised exclusively by those who were paid to do it, people who might not always have obeyed their professional code but at least knew that there was one, now it can be done by anyone with a Facebook page. Similarly, advertising of a sort can now be carried out by anyone with an Instagram account or a Facebook page and many of these people have turned out to be a good deal less scrupulous than the professionals they used to castigate.
I was recently invited to join a WhatsApp group started by the people who live down my street. A brief look at this group was enough to tell me that even this bunch of average people, once seated at a keyboard, feeling they had suddenly been given permission to pronounce on local issues, would blunder directly into statements that could easily land them in court and would make claims that they had no possible way of supporting. I declined to take part.
That’s one of the things I’ve discovered in the last few years as the tools of communication have been taken from the professionals and put in the hands of amateurs. The amateurs have turned out to be every bit as unscrupulous as the pros ever were.
The amateurs have turned out to be every bit as unscrupulous as the pros ever were.