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Wednesday, 30 May, 2001, 14:30 GMT 15:30 UK
Has the ASA had its day?
By BBC News Online's Brian Wheeler
If news this week that Virgin Trains has been rapped by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for misleading customers over fare deals seemed familiar that's because it was.
The train operator has had complaints upheld against it by the ad watchdog no less than four times in the past year.
It joins a growing list of companies which appear to be deliberately flouting the ASA's regulations, leading some to question the watchdog's future role.
The ASA has threatened to "pre-vet" future Virgin Train ads.
But is it time the watchdog itself was vetted or - as some have argued - scrapped altogether?
Critics say the ASA was created for less commercial times, when a stern press release and a slap on the wrist were enough to shame companies into mending their ways.
Unlike the Independent Television Commission (ITC), which deals with complaints about television ads, it is a self-regulatory body.
It has little legal force.
It is funded by the advertising industry and relies on the co-operation of newspaper owners and media companies to make its "bans" stick.
It was set up in the early 1960s to deal with complaints about non-broadcast advertising in print, poster, direct mail and the cinema.
However, within its own terms, the ASA has been a major success story.
In Britain, its edict that advertisments should be "legal, decent, honest and truthful" has entered the language.
With very few excecptions, newspapers and media owners abide by the ASA's rulings.
When they don't, it is more often than not in connection with one of their own promotions.
Or - as in the case last year of a disturbing ad for children's charity Barnardos which showed a baby injecting heroin - when they disagree with a ruling on taste and decency.
The ad was banned by the ASA but some broadsheet newspapers chose to run it anyway because they felt it was a worthy cause - and their readers were grown-up enough not to be offended.
But, in a world where advertisers are increasingly using shock tactics to win over jaded consumers to less worthy causes, has the ASA had its day?
It has also, for the most part, kept advertising disputes out of the courts - saving money and time.
However, if an advertiser or media owner chooses to ignore an ASA ruling, there is very little the Authority can do about it.
The ASA has had a particular problem in recent years with ads for health products and cosmetic surgery clinics.
In September 1999, it upheld a complaint against a regional press ad by The Belgravia Tricological Centre, a London clinic which claims to treat hair loss.
Unfortunately, it was not the first time this particular ad had been "banned".
The complainant, a qualified tricologist, objected to its "continued re-appearance" after the ASA had already established that the clinic's "Trichogrammic" test "neither used X rays or helped fight hair loss", as the company had claimed.
In its adjudication, the ASA said it was "disappointed that the advertisement had re-appeared twice and instructed the advertisers to ensure the advertisement did not re-appear again."
Supposedly cynical ad men have long been accused of making the most of their budgets by provoking the ASA into taking action - and counting the free column inches generated as a result.
The ASA's response becomes part of the campaign. The accusations are normally denied by the companies involved.
Between June 1998 and 1999, low cost airline Ryanair had five complaints upheld against it.
At the time, the company was locked in a fierce price-cutting battle with rivals EasyJet and was running a series of cheap flight promotions in tabloid newspapers, which saw it fall foul of ASA rulings.
It also ran deliberately provocative ads - such as the one in the Evening Standard - with the straplines "Blow Me" and "Satisfaction Guaranteed", which were duly banned by the ASA, weeks after they appeared.
The ultimate sanction in such circumstances is pre-vetting, which was introduced by the ASA to clip the wings of persistent offenders.
Clothes retailer French Connection, which provoked outrage with its FCUK series of ads, created by advertising 'bad boy' Trevor Beattie's TBWA agency, is among a growing list of companies which has to submit to the ASA censor's pen.
The only surefire way of preventing advertisers from flouting the rules is statutory regulation - something that is fiercely resisted by the advertising industry.
Ad agency creatives may shake their heads in disbelief when the ASA fails to see the funny side of a "cheeky" or irreverent ad like the FCUK campaign.
But the prospect of a committee of politicians or civil servants earnestly poring over their work beggars belief - and smacks of state censorship.
Self-regulation, the ASA argues, protects the creative freedom for which the British advertising industry is justly renowned.
And although its days seemed numbered when Labour came to power in 1997, Culture Secretary Chris Smith has since given his whole-hearted backing to the ASA system.
Far from being an anachronism, the ASA is exactly the sort of "light touch" regulator Labour wants to see more of in future.
The Conservatives also favour self-regulation as an alternative to more red tape and censorship.
Whoever wins the general election, it seems the advertising watchdog could be in for a new lease of life.
29 May 01 | Business
Virgin Trains ads rapped again
18 Dec 00 | UK
Naked Sophie Dahl ad banned
28 Mar 01 | UK
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04 Apr 01 | UK
Time called on FCUK posters
06 Apr 01 | UK
Trevor Beattie: Getting noticed, all right
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