As doyen of public authority chairs Sir Gordon Borrie signs off as chairman on his first ASA Annual Report.
Topic: Self regulation
Who: The Advertising Standards Authority
When: May 2002
The Advertising Standards Authority published its annual report for 2001, containing the usual collection of interesting statistics about probably the world's most effective and respected advertising self-regulatory system. Perhaps the most sobering numbers, as well as the most reflective of the state of health of the advertising market generally last year, were the figures in relation to the sheer volume of complaints received and handled. These were either down or only up marginally, compared with 2000. The number of complaints resolved increased by just 1.6% over the previous year to 12,589, while the total number of advertisements requiring investigation following a complaint fell by a significant 19.5% on 2000.
The percentage of advertisements found to breach the codes out of all those investigated in 2001 also fell to 651 or 6.5% of all advertisements "resolved" in the year, from 755/8.8% in 2000. It his first Chairman's report, however, Lord Borrie cautions against finding any comfort in the reduced numbers of complaints. In a remark of which advertisers or agencies responding to enquiries from the ASA should take heed, he urges them not to defend on the grounds that "only one person complained". The implication is that the number of complaints received has no bearing upon how the complaint is investigated and adjudicated.
So far as industry use of the system is concerned, there is again a note of consistency sounded in the 9% of complaints made to the ASA which came from advertisers' competitors, exactly the same percentage as in 2000. A much higher percentage of industry use applied to the "Independent Reviewer" appeal procedure instituted in April 1999. Since then, 40% of the 136 review requests have been in relation to industry to industry complaint adjudications. The Independent Review process is not heavily used. In 2001 just 37 requests were logged and only 11 of these met the criteria for processing.
Taking the dubious honour of being the most complained about medium of the year was direct mail, with a stonking 51% rise in complaints, enabling it to overtake posters. Complaints year on year about posters fell by a significant 36% compared with the year 2000 and by 22% in respect of national press ads. Not surprisingly, complaints about internet advertising and marketing messages delivered by SMS or "text" were steadily on the increase.
Internally, the ASA's overall headcount remains steady at 69, whilst perhaps indicative of the fewer number of judicial review cases which the ASA had to grapple with in 2001 was a drop in its “consultancy and professional fees” expenditure from £286,350 to £229,378. This helped the housekeeping. Taking into account a perhaps surprising, bearing in mind the general advertising down-turn, increase in receipts from the ASBOF levy for 2001 of £4,240,000 from the £4,086,207 figure for 2000, this helped the ASA near enough balance its books with a profit before tax of £2155 and a loss after tax of £1117.
The Report also reveals that the continuing low level of use of the Control of Misleading Advertisements Regulations. These allow the Office of Fair Trading to go to court for injunctions banning advertising which repeatedly flouts the Code. These were deployed and the subject of litigation in only three cases in 2001.
Why this matters:
All in all, the Report presents a picture of “steady as she goes”, with a side-swipe at the recent EU Green Paper proposing an EU-wide reconfiguration of consumer protection laws around a general duty not to indulge in “unfair commercial practices”. The ASA cautions “against undue haste embarking on fundamental changes to present national and cross-border arrangements until a case for reform has been made”.