Sir Gordon Borrie, doyen of public authority chairs, signs off on his last Advertising Standards Authority annual report. But what else of note lurks in the 2006 Report of the world’s leading advertising self/co-regulator? Anna Montes adjudicates.
Who: Advertising Standards Authority
When: May 2007
Where: United Kingdom
Law stated as at: 30 May 2007
This month saw the release of the Advertising Standards Authority's 2006 Annual Report. After a busy year at ASA headquarters, the report had many topics to cover, from changes to food, alcohol and gambling advertising regulations to an increased number of advertising campaigns which were the subject of complaints. It has also been a year which has seen the end of the ASA's probation period as the one-stop shop for advertising complaints and which has therefore confirmed the ASA's future in this respect.
Statistics compiled by the ASA suggest that it remains responsive to issues affecting the advertising sector. The number of complaints fell by 14.5% to 22,429 which was good news on the one hand although on the other hand, the total number of ads which were the subject of a complaint rose to 12 842. TV remains the most complained about media followed by national press, the internet, direct mail and poster advertising respectively. There was good news however for email marketing as the number of complaints in this arena fell 10% and the number of complaints about mobile marketing via SMS messages also decreased. It therefore appears that the digital marketing sector is doing things better in the eyes of consumers. The leisure industry however looks as though it may need to pay more attention to its campaigns as when complaints are listed according to sector, the leisure sector received more complaints than any other with the telecommunications and computers sector coming second.
It is also clear from the report that the majority of complaints regarding advertisements last year concerned the internet to one degree or another, highlighting the need for greater policing of advertising via this medium. The number of complaints about internet advertising rose by 33% in 2006 overtaking the number of complaints concerning poster campaigns and mail shots. Current Chairman of the ASA Lord Borrie QC acknowledged this was an area needing attention and he is quoted as saying the issues associated with internet advertising need to be addressed by the industry to restore consumer faith in online advertising. He stressed the ASA did not want to "control" the internet but that social responsibility so far as the internet was concerned is key.
The report has also sought to indicate that the ASA is responding to public policy concerns more hence the first ASA adjudications under the new alcohol rules and the range of public consultations held during 2006 regarding food advertising to children and the introduction of new rules for gambling advertising. 2006 also saw a decrease of 20% in the number of challenges referred to the Independent Reviewer of ASA Adjudications. In his introduction the current Chairman Lord Borrie QC highlights that the ASA used to look after seven types of advertising 45 years ago and now it is responsible for over 30 different advertising media which is quite a challenge.
So far as the day to day practice of complaining about ads is concerned, in 2006 complaints were on the whole resolved within an average of nine working days and 87% of complaints were dealt with within target. Complaints requiring investigation were resolved within an average of 56 days (with 73% being within target).
Why this matters:
Reading the Annual Report is like reading a summary of what the advertising sector tried and tested last year and what they failed to get right. It also serves as a reminder of what the public consider to be one step too far in advertising and this was illustrated by the top ten most complained against ads of 2006:
(a) the most complained about ad was that placed by the Gay Police Association depicting a bible and a pool of blood which intended to depict the alleged religious motivation behind an increase in homophobic incidents (553 complaints received);
(b) one advertising claim for Dolce & Gabbana fashion was judged to be offensive and socially irresponsible by the ASA for glamorising knife crime, whilst another campaign received complaints for same-sex kissing. The fashion house's association with Motorola and their Razor phone also courted controversy for its association with knife-related violence (although none of these complaints were upheld by the ASA);
(c) French Connection, a company which has in past courted controversy in its advertising, was again the subject of complaints for the depiction of same-sex kissing (although these complaints were not upheld); and
(d) finally, advertisers were also reminded to use the word "free" with care after the Carphone Warehouse was reprimanded for its print campaign in which it promised to make its services "free for ever" (complaints upheld).
As with previous years, the biggest cause of complaint about ads was that they were untruthful or dishonest. It is also worth bearing in mind that of all the complaints received by the ASA only 12% of complaints relating to broadcast media and 9% of those relating to non-broadcast media were filed by industry sources so those complaining about advertisers' campaigns really are potential customers rather than competitors in most cases. We are also soon going to see the arrival of Former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the Rt Honourable Lord Smith of Finsbury taking over the helm of the ASA next month so we shall wait to see what changes he may bring with him in 2007 and onwards.
If they take nothing else from the Annual Report, advertisers and their advertising agencies should at least note the themes and subject matters that upset the public last year and proceed with caution if they wish to feature such themes within their own advertising. It is better to learn from the experiences of others than be made an example of for all the wrong reasons……