Increasingly powerful acronyms ASA, CAP and BCAP recently published their ‘Annual Statement 2005/2006.’ This heightens fears of an ASA annexation of the BACC and RACC broadcast advertising vetting bodies and concerns over the current ASA appeal procedure. Self-service by clicking on
The Advertising Standards Authority, The Committee of Advertising Practice and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice
UK advertising's über self-regulators, The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and The Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) published their joint "Annual statement 2005-2006."
Not to be confused with the ASA's backward looking annual report, this sets out the objectives of the 3 bodies for the year ahead.
Lord Borrie QC reports that in the ASA's first year of operation as a one stop shop for processing complaints in respect of broadcast and non-broadcast advertising, things are on track for the receipt of approximately 30,000 complaints. This is a one third increase on the combined total of complaints in 2004 to Ofcom and the ASA. Much of that increase can be attributed, Lord Borrie says, to a large number of complaints being received in respect of a handful of ads, but clearly, he goes on, the one stop shop structure is making the regulator more accessible to consumers.
Full revision of all codes by 2008
Included in the 2006 objectives are the review and research of all the advertising codes. This is to pave the way for full revision so as to achieve consistency between the TV, radio and non-broadcast codes by 2007 – 2008.
Gambling ad code?
Another stated objective is to work with the Gambling Commission to establish self-regulation as the means for delivering the advertising provisions of The Gambling Act 2005. (This is an interesting one since the 2005 Gambling Act makes it quite clear that the current plan is for the GC to draw up non self-regulatory, legal gambling advertising regulations).
BACC/ASA power struggle?
Another objective is to promote the non-broadcast copy advice service offered by the CAP and to "work with the broadcast clearance centres for a co-ordinated approach to the evaluation and clearance of TV and radio ads, so as to offer helpful and consistent guidance to advertisers, agencies and media."
This is odd, since for the last umpteen years, the Broadcast and Radio Advertising Clearance Centres have been happily pre-vetting all advertising due to go out on UK commercial stations' airways. Why these entities should all of a sudden require the assistance of the ASA in thier work is not explained. We sense a power struggle in the offing.
Staffing issues to be addressed
Another 2006 objective is to "recruit and manage for a more experienced and stable workforce with a better spread of skills, age and background," a clear indicator that the ASA has been experiencing challenges in this area.
Appeal procedure spotlight
Perhaps the most interesting part of the Statement is the report of the independent reviewer, Sir John Caines.
Sir John is the man who processes appeals against ASA decisions. Or rather, he decides whether a challenge to a decision should end up in an appeal.
What happens is that dissatisfied advertisers or complainants must within 21 days of the final ASA decision they wish to appeal against write to Sir John. They have to persuade him that either on grounds of new evidence having since come to light or by reason, essentially of perversity, the ASA decision should be appealed.
If Sir John decides there are such grounds for appeal, he gives the green light to the decision going to a full appeal. The appeal body is …er… the same body that made the decision in the first place, the ASA Council.
Looking back, Sir John reports that "in the first half of the year" (it is not crystal clear which period we are talking about here since this is an annual statement 2005-2006, but we will assume for present purpose that he means the first 6 months of 2005), he received 22 requests for review, 9 from complainants and 13 from advertisers.
Out of these, only 5 satisfied the criteria for reference back to the ASA Council. Of these 5, only 2 ended up in the Council overturning its original verdict.
Of the 22, 2 cases are still awaiting an adjudication by the ASA Council, but what do we make of these figures as they stand?
Depending on how you look at it, they are either a sign of a healthy and robust system for processing complaints about ads, leading to largely bomb-proof first instance decisions, or of an appeal procedure that is unduly weighted against the appellant and urgently in need of review.
Why this matters:
It is certainly of interest to see how these bodies view the advertising self-regulatory world looking forward into the next year. We do have serious concerns, however, about two particular strands.
First of all, there appears to be the thinly veiled bid for greater power over the broadcast advertising pre-vetting system currently operated by the Broadcast & Radio Advertising Clearance Centres. Secondly, there is the Independent Reviewer's report with its very low tally of successfully appealed decisions.
We are aware of strong undercurrents of concern regarding the transparency, or rather lack of it, of both the Independent Reviewer's decision-making process and the appeal procedures of the Council itself, which end in the same body deciding whether its earlier decision was wrong. We believe this should be rigorously scrutinised by Ofcom when it to comes to review the ASA's performance as a one stop shop regulator at the end of its probationary period.