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Last Updated: Friday, 12 December 2003, 13:41 GMT
Adland faces up to self-control
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online Magazine

The tone and style of TV ads could be changing as a new watchdog takes over at the end of the month. Some say it will mean increased censorship while others believe it will lead to more shocking commercials.

It's not always obvious where the boundaries of public taste lie when it comes to what's on television. To illustrate the point, here are four controversial adverts which came in front of the regulator after complaints from viewers.

Two were eventually banned and two not. To watch the ads click on the links below. (You may find some of the images disturbing.)

But as the UK advertising industry teeters on gaining self regulation, these are precisely the sort of judgement calls it may have to make in the future.

Print and cinema ads are already self-regulated, through the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). Next year TV and radio ads could be joining them. The Radio Authority and the ITC, which currently say what commercial broadcasters can and cannot transmit, are to be disbanded.

Their functions will be swallowed up by Ofcom, the government's new super-regulator for the entire communications industry. One of Ofcom's first actions could be to "contract out" the handling of complaints about broadcast advertising to the ASA.

Benetton advert
Controversial ads risk offending, but can grab the headlines
But with an ad-industry funded body such as the ASA in charge, will standards of taste and decency slip?

Will advertisers - already pushing the boundaries at every opportunity - resort to ever more salacious and shocking images to get their message across? Or will adland - already sensitive to growing concerns about advertising to children, alcohol and fast cars - actually tighten up its act?

The answer, according to senior industry figures, is neither.

Andrew Brown, director general of the Advertising Association, says any new system would simply be an evolution of the current regime, "which has served consumers well".

The industry will not, he says, be "given a free hand" because Ofcom will retain "back-stop" powers. The super-regulator will provide the statutory muscle behind the ASA's friendly tap on the shoulder, retaining the right to fine a broadcaster or, in the last resort, remove its license.

Talking to the public

Nevertheless, Ofcom is sensitive to the charge it is going "soft" on advertising and is holding a public consultation exercise, to make doubly sure it is doing the right thing. The deadline is 9 January.

At the moment, if you want to complain about an ad you face a bewildering array of watchdogs.

  • The ASA covers print, cinema and direct mail
  • The ITC handles TV
  • The Radio Authority deals with radio
  • Everybody wants to oversee the internet

    The first effect of the new regime will be to have one "letter box" for all complaints. It will also save the government money, as it will be funded by the ad industry.

    Another advantage of the ASA is that it will be closer to the industry. It knows the advertisers' tricks and has access to their audience research. So, in theory, it will be better in turn with public tastes.

    Responsibility for the industry's behaviour should come from within, as long as there are appropriate safeguards
    Ofcom's Kip Meek
    But some have argued the system smacks of censorship. Surely, the argument goes, in today's media savvy world we should not be relying on shadowy committees to decide what we can watch in our own homes.

    John Bayer, of Mediawatch UK, which monitors standards of TV and radio, disagrees.

    "Advertising is uninvited. You have no control over what you see. You don't pick out adverts in a programme guide, they appear unannounced. That's why it needs to be regulated."

    Although it favours a switch to the ASA to handle complaints, Mediawatch thinks Ofcom, the regulator, should vet all ads before transmission. The problem with the current system and any proposed replacement, it argues, is that it is retrospective.

    Children watching TV in the 1950s
    It was all so much more simple in yesteryear
    By the time the regulator has swung into action, the damage has, more often than not, been done. Two of the ads features at the top of this page were banned, but only after they had been broadcast.

    The ASA has been known to take weeks to reach an adjudication. It will clearly have to move quicker, says Kip Meek of Ofcom, if it is given the TV and radio beat.

    If - as expected by industry insiders - the public backs the transfer of broadcast advertising to the ASA - it will be a major coup for the 40-year-old regulator, which has been fighting a turf war with the ITC for years for the right to be the single advertising regulator.

    It will also be a shot in the arm for the UK ad industry.

    Whether it will be a boost for the viewer - whether the viewer will even notice - remains to be seen.

    Why the ads were and were not banned
  • The Carling ad was not banned. The regulator said it did not contain a damaging or undermining portrayal of disability.
  • The Xbox ad was banned. It was judged to have caused "considerable distress" to many viewers.
  • The NSPCC ad was not banned, although it was ordered not to be shown before the 2100 watershed.
  • The Hula Hoops ad was banned, after complaints that it had been "shocking and upsetting".

    Some of your comments:

    UK adverts are so much more provocative and forthright than the general drivel in the US and none of these ads are either gross or indecent. A lot of thought and loot went into them, and it is a sorry state of affairs when some anonymous ivory tower suit can have the power and authority to decide what we can or can't watch. On the so called dodgy ones, don't we have a 2100 hour watershed which can be put to better use?
    Steve Warrington, US

    I find safety and charity adverts most offensive. They seek to get the message across using the most disturbing images possible, often at times when children are watching. These adverts are desensitising adults and upsetting children. Such adverts should be restricted to printed media, where the context can be clearly understood by the reader.
    Ray Allen, UK

    I couldn't believe the Xbox one was taken off TV. Everyone uses the phrase 'life is short', and Microsoft humourously visualised it for the advert. I couldn't see the harm in the advert at all. So much fuss over nothing in my opinion.
    Martin Bunker, UK

    I do not think the authority was in the correct state of mind to ban the Hula Hoops advert, the other - the XBox, was justified. The NSPCC should be played before the watershed as I believe children should be seeing this - and encouraged to tell if they are being abused. After 9pm defeats the purpose of it.
    Kristofer McGhee, Scotland

    Am I missing the point here? What is "upsetting" about the Hula Hoops advertisement? The only "upsetting" thing I could identify is that it is not as funny as it seems it will be.
    PV, UK

    I found the NSPCC ad most shocking but it should not be banned because it is being shown to help children. The other three ads didn't seem shocking at all to me, the Hula Hoop and Carling ads are a bit weird but the Xbox one is pretty clever.
    Suzanne Gordon, UK

    To have the UK advertising industry regulating itself would be like putting the foxes in charge of the chickens. What moron can think that would work?
    John Richards, New Zealand

    I must confess I enjoyed all those adverts artistically. The Carling ad was hilarious. The XBox ad was cleverly made and executed. The NSPCC ad definitely got the message across. The Hula Hoops ad was harmless (although I did laugh out loud when I read that it was banned because it was "Shocking"!) If I could regulate adverts, the first thing I'd introduce would be a rule where the sound volume and intensity matches the television shows. The number of times I have jumped out of my skin when adverts came on are countless. If anything, it made me make note of the product encouraging me NOT to buy it.
    Steve Godrich, UK

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