Is the ASA good for advertising? A case for the positive

Guy Parker chief executive of the ANA

How can the ASA like ads when it bans so many of them? How can it have the best interest of the advertising industry at heart, when it regularly shines a spotlight on irresponsible practice in that industry? An industry, by the way, that’s suffering declining public trust.

Our work - the ad rules we administer, the policies behind them and the decisions we take -gets people talking, whether it’s about broadband pricing or gender stereotyping. And, more often than not, the context is negative: misleading, harmful or irresponsible ads, coming under scrutiny by the public, civil society and politicians.

Hence the question: is the ASA good for advertising?

The answer is a clear yes.

If we and our work aren’t being talked about, how will the public, politicians, civil society, adland and others know that UK advertising is effectively regulated? How will advertisers know where we draw the line and how the rules apply both to them and their competitors, ensuring a level playing-field? How will we communicate new standards, ad bans or, just as importantly, where advertisers are getting it right and where and how they can seek our help if they’re unsure of the rules? And if we’re not spoken about, how can we be held to account?

The ASA is here to make UK ads responsible. And part of that, of course, involves banning ads. But let me dispel any perception that we’re anti-industry or enjoy banning ads. We’re not and we don’t. We love responsible ads that entertain and inform (the good ones, at least!). Responsible ads are good for people, society and business. They give us choice and deliver value. They fund the media, sport and culture we enjoy. They can be a direct force for social good, encouraging us to contribute to good causes and put our seatbelts on. And they help power the economy. We want to create an environment in which responsible ads can flourish.

In fact, the majority of ads we receive complaints about don’t break the rules. Far from being a regulator desperate to investigate everything that comes our way, week-in-week-out we’re dealing with complaints where we don’t think there’s a case to answer.

Will we step in when the ad rules have been broken? Yes, unashamedly. But we’re not here to stifle creativity. I’d argue that having sensible rules in place and a watchdog that isn’t afraid to use them encourages more creative thinking, innovation and inventiveness, preventing lazy thinking and a race to the bottom.

Naturally there will always be people who disagree with some of our rulings, not least advertisers that find themselves on the wrong side of them. The decisions we make are rarely black or white. Judgement comes into it and, wherever that is so, reasonable minds can differ. In making our judgments we find ourselves playing the disappointment game. One side - advertiser or complainant - will be happy, the other will not.

Disagreeing with a ruling is everyone’s right, but don’t ignore the bigger picture: our regulation is good for business. For advertising to be effective, it has to be trusted. Public cynicism towards business and brands is high. Industry research in recent years reveals year-on-year declines in consumer trust of most forms of advertising. The trust problem is not advertising’s alone, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less of a problem for the industry.

Look, let’s be honest: much of the move to greater public distrust is a good thing. Do our institutions deserve unthinking devotion and respect? Do we want a gullible public that swallows everything it’s told? This is particularly so in an era of fake news and echo chambers, amplified by the major part that social media plays in our lives. With ad spend increasingly migrating to that space, like it or not, advertising is part of that landscape.

Advertisers and agencies are, of course, early adopters of technology. That brings about new and dynamic ways of reaching and interacting with consumers. But inherent in that is a duty to be responsible. The equivalent of being invited to an all-you-can-eat buffet but exercising restraint.

Just because something seems like a good idea doesn’t mean it is. Witness the recent headlines around a US TV ad intended to trigger people’s Google Home device, activating it to read out the advertised product’s Wikipedia entry. Clever? Not if you stop for a minute to think about it from a privacy perspective. (Not to mention the mischievousness of a public that quickly amended the entry to say derogatory things about the product.) Bad advertising practice leads to an erosion of trust between brand and public. We need only look at the take-up rate of ad blockers to see the prevailing sentiment towards intrusive online ads.

By regulating firmly but fairly, we help play our part in bolstering public confidence in the ads people see and hear. And, happily, research also shows that an awareness that advertising is regulated correlates with higher trust. In other words, ensuring awareness and understanding of the role the ASA plays in making sure ads are responsible is a key part of tackling the ad industry trust problem.

We’re not just here to ban. We’re absolutely committed to helping advertisers get their ads right before they run them. Our array of training, guidance and advice resources, most of it free, is testament to that. Did you know we delivered over 280,000 pieces of advice and training last year?

The industry’s buy-in to being legal, decent, honest and truthful is crucial to our success. And it’s enormously to the credit of the industry that it ensures the proper funding of and engagement with an ASA that, on a fairly regularly basis, shines a spotlight on bad practice. It does so because it sees the long game: the ASA absolutely is good for advertising.

Guy Parker is the chief executive of the Advertising Standards Authority

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