MP Colin Challen was unimpressed when the ASA rejected his complaint that a British Nuclear Group press add was misleading. He was even less impressed to learn that the ad had been cleared pre publication by the ASA’s sister body and the Committee of Advertising Practice.
Who: The New Statesman, The Advertising Standards Authority and The British Nuclear Group
Where: The UK
When: December 2005
The UK Press Gazette reported allegations of Advertising Standards Authority "collusion" with the nuclear power industry over a "faked" photograph that appeared in an ad published in the New Statesman and other magazines.
The ad was placed by the British Nuclear Group and focused on the de-commissioning of a particular nuclear power plant. The headline read "De-commissioning Berkeley showed that one new British business has a clear future".
The ad featured 3 circular photographs. The smallest was of the Berkeley plant in full swing with all of the outbuildings in place around the plant. The second, slightly larger picture showed the main plant but the outbuildings had disappeared with green fields in their place. The largest photograph showed no plant or outbuildings and just fields and woodland.
Third image electronically manipulated
What the ad did not state in terms was that the third and largest picture was not of the site as it is today. On the contrary it was an electronically manipulated photograph of how the site might eventually look once the plant had been completely de-commissioned and removed.
MP Colin Challen, chair of the Parliamentary All Party Group on Climate Change, complained about the advertisement to the ASA, but his claim was rejected.
The ASA pointed out that against the three photographs were three paragraphs of copy headlined respectively "Past", "Present" and "Future". The ASA was reported as stating that these headlines appearing "next to each picture" would clearly convey the concept that the de-commissioning was yet to be completed and that anyone viewing the ad would understand this and realise that the third and largest picture was an impressionistic picture of how the site might look in the future.
MP not satisfied with ASA verdict
MP Colin Challen was not satisfied with the rejection and was particularly unhappy to discover later that the advertisement had been discussed by British Nuclear Group with the Committee of Advertising Practice ("CAP") prior to publication.
The substance of the advice given by the CAP has not been disclosed, but Challen is concerned that there may have been some form of collusion between the CAP and British Nuclear Group. The MP has been quoted as stating that "it seems that the Advertising Standards Authority accepts lower standards from BNFL in promoting the nuclear industry than retailers are permitted in selling foods".
In Challen's view "the combined effect of the photo and the advert's strap line was very misleading. Basically, the ASA is now saying that a fake picture – which can speak a thousand words – is OK".
Challen has challenged Lord Borrie, Head of the Advertising Standards Authority, to defend what he has described as the ASA's approval of the ad.
Why this matters:
Clearly there are always going to be cases where the CAP, as part of its free pre-publication clearance service, comes to a view which the Advertising Standards Authority disagrees with once a complaint has been made. In this case, of course, the ASA took the same view as the CAP had done in the first place, assuming of course that the CAP had given its approval to the ad when BNG approached it for its comments. But were they both right?
We have concerns about the ad. The ASA talks about the headlines "Past", "Present" and "Future" helping to clarify that the biggest picture is in fact an impression as to how the site in question might look in the future. Having looking at the advertisement ourselves, however, we are not so sure.
The ASA might have had a stronger point if each of the paragraph headlines were positioned directly adjacent to the relevant photo. This is not however the case.
The paragraph headed "Present" for example is closest to the electronically manipulated picture of the site as it might look in the future, whilst the paragraph headed "Past" is closest to the photographs of the site as it was in the past and as it now looks today. We believe it is asking rather a lot of the reader to immediately jump to the conclusion from this that the largest photograph depicts the future as opposed to how the site actually looks now at the apparent end of the de-commissioning process.
It is not clear from reports as to whether Challen has initiated the independent review procedure in respect of this decision, but if he has not and still has time, we do suggest that he does.