Countdown to our 50th anniversary: 1991 – 1992
7 September 2012
It was 1991 and on the foreign front, the Gulf War began. The allies, including the RAF, undertook bombing raids on Iraq. While on the domestic front, the pop charts were stuck in limbo with Bryan Adams’ hit single “I do it for you” staying at number one for 16 consecutive weeks.
On the regulatory front, for the first time new rules governing advertisements ‘by charities, pressure groups, trade unions and corporate advertisers’ came into force. It was a change that was overdue, we noted previously that:
“As complainants have challenged more and more of these advertisements, the Authority's Council has become increasingly frustrated at their immunity from the usual tests for factual accuracy”.
Happily there appears to have been a universal appetite from the public, as well as the aforementioned bodies themselves, for these ads to be subject to the rules with “the overwhelming majority agreed that - in line with commercial advertisements - claims made in their advertisements should be supportable by full documentary evidence”.
The same cannot be said for political ads. Again, our Annual Report highlighted that politics and advertising don’t mix, at least when it comes to being ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’. Indeed, the general election that year prompted “a certain amount of wry comment about why the requirement for truthfulness in advertising should not apply to political advertisements”.
Why this impasse? Firstly, as our Chairman sagely pointed out “I believe that the politicians are more legitimately regulated by the electorate than by us”. But, perhaps more tellingly was the lack of buy-in from the political classes “There was no consensus among political parties to accept self-regulatory controls - some were willing, others were not. Moreover, it was considered inappropriate for a non-elected body such as the ASA to interfere in the electoral process without an unchallenged invitation to do so”.
We had plenty enough to occupy us without worrying about political ads however. In 1991 CAP handed us responsibility for adjudicating on competitor complaints. For the first time this brought the results of this kind of investigation into the public spotlight, being published alongside our other rulings and attracting the glare of negative publicity. We also announced a major review of the Codes to ensure they remained relevant and effective.
There was also the small issue of testing the robustness of our legal backstop powers. It appears a health and beauty firm, Anthony Green & Co persisted in making claims that their products could “slow hair growth or achieve long periods of non-growth” contrary to our upheld rulings. Having tried our patience we referred the company to the OFT who secured “formal undertakings to stop making their unsubstantiated claims.” A clear reminder that if advertisers won’t cooperate with us we can refer to a statutory authority that can compel them to comply. But, as OFT Director General Sir Bryan Carsberg almost wistfully mused “it would have been better if they had responded more positively to the ASA’s initial objections to the advertisements”.
And, lastly, if our legal backstop powers weren’t sanction enough, consider the observation by William Kay of Business Life magazine who, upon analysing sexual imagery in French and Swedish ads, noted that “Try those stunts in the British media, and the ASA would be on you like a sumo wrestler”.
The ultimate sanction.
Read the 1991 Annual report here