A fascinating report on public attitudes to advertising and its regulation commissioned by the ASA has good and bad news for advertisers.
Topic: Self regulation
Who: The Advertising Standards Authority
When: February 2002
As the UK's self regulatory system for non-broadcast advertising approaches its 40th anniversary, the Advertising Standards Authority, the Committee of Advertising Practice and the Advertising Standards Board of Finance, the triumvirate of bodies that operate the system, are stepping back and taking a bird's eye view of the whole process. As part of the exercise, they invited research organisation "The Thinking Shop" to conduct a study of the public's perception of advertising in the UK. The idea is to help the ASA's understanding of public opinion so that the application of the British Code of Advertising and Sales Promotion continues to develop in a responsible way. A wide range of groups was interviewed across the country, and the research has a number of clear messages, many of which are encouraging for the advertising industry.
Examples of these are the finding that advertising is relied on as a provider of information about products, as a subsidiser of leisure activities through sponsorship etc, as a touchstone of everyday culture and provider of diversion and excitement. "Life would be very dull without advertising" was a common comment.
Another finding which may well inform the ASA in its attitude to what its code may cover in the future was the very broad view of respondents as to what "advertising" actually covered. Essentially, it was felt that advertising was "anything that has a name on it", in other words everything from traditional above-the-line media, to the other end of the scale such as brand names on fashion items, branded carrier bags and heavily product-branded magazine features. In between, newspaper ads and lowly door drops came in for specific mention as a valued provider of information, for instance about comparative prices in local shops.
On a more negative note, the research identified aspects of advertising that decreased its effectiveness in the eyes of its audience. From every group of consumers, the first negative aspect that came out was their dislike of what the report terms "untruthful truthful advertising". This is advertising which may well be legal, comply with relevant codes and contain no lies as such. On the other hand, it still has a ring of untruthfulness, by perhaps failing to communicate the whole picture about a product, or, similarly, highlighting substantial benefits but being vague about the downsides.
Another pet advertising dislike was so called "weasels". There was a strong feeling that words such as "terms and conditions apply", "limited numbers available" or "priced from" are there not to protect the consumer, but to cover the back of the advertiser. Also in this vein, small print came in for criticism, particularly in advertising for accident claims specialists and those offering "debt consolidation" services. One telling comment came from an older female in the south of the country: "You see the print on the bottom and it's absolutely miniscule. People our age probably couldn't anyway, but yes it looks ever so rosy when you see the big bit until you read the little bit at the bottom". Financial services advertising also came in for criticism when it came to "unacceptable hyperbole". This was fine when it came to FMCG products such as lager ("probably the best lager in the world" was fine), but where there was exaggeration or misleadingness in financial advertising purporting to be factual and serious, this was a major cause of concern.
When it came to the image of the regulators, there was not huge awareness of the ASA or the ITC, but there was some limited recall of the "legal, decent, honest and truthful" slogan. Overall, respondents felt that the regulators were doing a good job, but there were still areas were it was felt that they should be doing more. These were largely areas where they had already expressed discontent. Respondents wanted regulators to ensure that advertisers, particularly in the financial area, should be open and truthful and not economical with the truth. With pricing and offer claims the regulators should look carefully at the "weasels" and the small print that the advertisers were seen to use to cover themselves. Advertising overload was also seen as an area of concern. Billboard advertising also came in for mention. Respondents wanted the ASA to stop posters becoming even more risqué than they were now. The clear feeling here was the medium was intrusive and, although a generally acceptable line was being held at the moment, it should not be allowed to slip any further.
Why this matters:
There are clear and mind-concentrating messages here for all advertisers, and the report will clearly be pored over carefully by the regulators and inform their approach in terms of the application of the present code and future modifications to it. As ever, one fundamental message is that if advertisers concerned with the products and media mentioned in the negative comments continue to push the line, they will only have themselves to blame if the regulators get tougher.