Chris Graham profile

By The Drum | Administrator

June 7, 2002 | 11 min read

Graham’s favourite ‘bad ad’ of all time.

“The ASA is pretty unshockable,” says Chris Graham, its director general. “People think that we are full of the great and the good and we are all old and quite easily shocked. We’re not. We are not there to be censors or social engineers and we don’t do political correctness. Our only judge in that realm is ‘will it cause serious or widespread offence?’”

He stops for a sip of coffee and to catch his breath before continuing: “If you think about the context in which your ad is appearing, if it is appropriate to the medium then there is no problem. There is a lot of sexy advertising in magazines like Cosmo and Loaded. Put that on a billboard and you have a problem. The classic example is the Sophie Dahl advert for Opium. The image is fine for Marie Clare or Cosmo, but put it outside a school, a mosque or a church and you get the most complained about advert in five years – she had 948 complaints in a week, poor dear. So the answer is, don’t do it.

“That ad’s still running in magazines – we’re not objecting to the image itself. But if you stick it up outside a school and the little kids point at it; ‘Mummy, what’s that lady doing?’ then you are testing the patience and tolerance of the Great British public.”

Graham has only been in Edinburgh for one night and already he has addressed a Marketing Society conference, visited a number of the east coast’s finest ad agencies, had a chat with the MD of a national Scottish newspaper and sniffed out one of Edinburgh’s trendiest restaurants. And there he sits with a coffee, reflecting on his crusade.

“It is important that consumers have a confidence in the system, but the advertisers need to have a confidence in the system too,” says Graham. “We need to re-connect with the advertising industry. We never forget that we were created by the advertising industry for a purpose. We’re not a statutory body, we’re not a quango, we are not there to stop creative people from doing their thing. We are simply there to hold the reins, make sure that the competition in advertising is fair, make sure that consumers aren’t misled or offended and that confidence in advertising is maintained.”

Graham, having just completed two years as the director general after joining the ASA in April 2000, is up north to “get the jungle drums going”. Previously, he was Secretary of the BBC, running between Sir John Burt and Sir Christopher Black, “generally keeping the constitutional show on the road”.

He joined the corporation in 1973 as a news trainee before working his way to the deputy editor post of The Money Programme and then managing editor of news programmes spanning TV and radio. Now, juggling his role of director general of the ASA, he also acts as vice-chairman of the European Advertising Standards Alliance. He works in London, but makes life even more difficult for himself, by living in Bath, as a long-distance commuter. Needless to say, he does “a lot of work on trains”. Graham’s latest train journey, however, coincides with ASA’s fortieth anniversary celebrations, a great achievement in itself for the three pillars of the advertising industry – the brands, the agencies and the media, Says Graham: “In 1962 they got together and said that they would stick to these standards, and if anyone steps out of line the other parties will undertake to get them back in line. That is the self in self-regulation. It is a tripod that supports the highest standards in advertising. If people don’t have confidence in advertising the chances are they won’t believe your ad.”

Forty years ago, when the ASA was first founded, 100 complaints were received in the first five years. These days the Authority handles over 13,000 in just one year. The ASA must be doing something right then? Graham smiles: “Either you could say that we are doing something right or advertising is doing a lot worse. I don’t think that advertising has got a lot worse; it’s got a lot better.

“Some of the things that you could say pre-1962 make your hair stand on end. My favourite, because I’m a child of the 50s, is ‘Maltesers – choose the chocolate that can help you keep slim.’ In your dreams. I think that advertising has become a great deal more responsible and much more sophisticated. But also the ASA is much better known. But I don’t know if the ASA can take all the credit for this because it is the industry working together that does it.

“I talk about the brand, the agency and the media as the three musketeers – all for one and one for all. The ASA only has to deal with a tiny minority of ads. Last year we investigated, either formally or informally, complaints about 10,000 ads; we asked for ads to be withdrawn or changed in 651 cases. Now that is in the context of hundreds of thousands of ads being placed every week.”

But as technology continues to advance more messages are bombarding the consumer from increasingly different media. So, as Graham admits, the ASA certainly isn’t short of things to do at the moment. However, as the expansion of media continues the Advertising Standards Authority has to continue to strive to remain relevant: “The majority of our work concerns misleading information rather than offensive adverts. The taste and decency stuff is what hits the headlines, but it is only about 20 per cent of what we do.

“It is the misleading adverts that are the bigger problem – ads for products that don’t do what the ads say they will do. That is really where our work is cut out. But those ads can appear anywhere – obscure trade publications, big national dailies or popular magazines. We don’t do television advertising and we don’t do radio. The ITC and the Radio Authority take care of that. The ASA only deals with non-broadcast advertising. But quite a lot of the interesting developments in new media are in the non-broadcast remit, so we’re also responsible for regulating advertising on the internet. That whole area is doubling. We had 50 per cent more complaints about internet advertising last year. We adjudicated on our first SMS text ad. We are responsible for advertising on broadband and for the advertising standards of commercial e-mails, pop-up adverts and banner ads.

“But the ASA is a forward-looking organisation. This fortieth anniversary is not about 40 glorious years. It is more about life begins at 40. The next bit is the interesting bit. We’ve got to be as effective with new media as we have been with conventional media, or we’ll become irrelevant.”

One complication, however, that the ASA has already successfully manoeuvred around is the recent Communications Bill and the newly created regulatory giant, OFCOM: “The tectonic plates of media regulation are shifting,” says Graham. “Obviously that is significant, but we have succeeded in our first objective – to continue with our self-regulatory system. We have worked hard over the last two years to make sure that we would be able to continue to do so. The Bill confirms the white papers’ views that self-regulation works well and that online advertising, which could easily have come under OFCOM, should continue to be self-regulating and monitored by the ASA. That is a considerable achievement.

“Long term, however, we would like to gauge the views of the industry on advertising across all platforms in converged media. There is a section in the Communications Bill that considers the self-regulation of broadcast as well as non-broadcast on the ASA’s model, and the Government has admitted that they could be interested. But it is not up to the ASA to push that forward, it is up to the industry to decide whether they want it.

“OFCOM is going to be involved in so many huge decisions, you have to question whether they are going to want to sit and listen to complaints about the latest Tango ad. As you get more and more channels you have to question whether it will be practical to have everything pre-vetted, as it is now. I can imagine a situation in which OFCOM is a lot less prescriptive.”

“If everything had to be decided by a statutory body you couldn’t possibly pre-vet everything. It just couldn’t be done. The self-regulatory system is much less formal (one of the cardinal points of a self-regulatory system is that the burden of proof is reversed) – an advertiser has to prove that a product does what it says in the ad. Now, if I were to refer an advertiser to the Office of Fair Trading for prosecution under the control of misleading advertisements regulations – which I can, but do very rarely – the OFT cannot investigate it on the basis of the reverse burden of proof.

They have to bring in lawyers and establish the other. They have to prove that the product doesn’t do what it says it does in the ad. They would have to do it in a far more formal way, meaning that they wouldn’t be able to get through nearly as many of the 10,001 complaints that we did last year. Self-regulation is the way ahead.”

The ASA’s biggest battle at the moment, however, is to persuade the European Commission that the self-regulation model is one that they ought to apply to the single market within Europe, Says Graham: “We need to demonstrate to the policy makers in Brussels that self-regulation is effective – it is. It is better than law.”

But what of those that choose to ignore the codes and continually breach the regulations as recommended by the Authority? “The message to the creative community is that it’s inevitable that there will be a few disasters unless you take notice of the code. If you don’t, it will come up and bite you. The only way of dealing with it is to take advice, know the code, don’t try it on because you will probably do damage to the brand, you’ll probably lose the account and you can’t win a prize in an industry award if the ASA has adjudicated against you. In the case of posters you might even be put in the sin-bin and have to pre-vet all your posters for two years, which is a complete pain. That’s what happened to the Ali G poster – we had 114 complaints in a week.

“I think that notoriety is a bit played out.” However, Graham is more interested in prevention than punishment and looks to shift resources from investigative to preventative work, helping practitioners get their ads right before they get placed: “We already offer advice on our website – Copy Advance Service (CAP). I wish that we could find a way of making that better known. It’s free, in that you pay for it in advance through the ASA levy, it’s absolutely confidential, very user friendly and it’s very fast. We have a target to turn around 90 per cent of enquiries within 24 hours. I think at the moment we are achieving about 88 per cent, but we’re working on it. Frankly though, it makes much more sense to prevent problems rather than to spend a great deal of time investigating them.”

Facts & Figures 2001

49 Ad Alerts were sent out by the Compliance team

1.6% increase in number of complaints compared with 2000

4,508 mentions of the ASA in the press

20% of complaints were about decency

190 TV and radio interviews were given by ASA spokespeople

81% of calls to the ASA were answered within four rings

771 adjudications were published on the ASA’s website

91% of complaints were received from the public

14 persistent offenders were subject to compliance action

8 ASA Awards were presented to advertising students

88% of enquiries to CAP were dealt with in 24 hours

14% of complaints were about national press ads

68 industry and public events involving the ASA

2.7% of complaints were about comparison

3 companies referred to the OFT for action


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +