They had the Beatles, we’ve got the Eagles. They have Big Ben, we have the Washington Monument. There are endless comparisons to make between British institutions and those born in the United States, and things are no different the advertising field. Today, we’re talking specifically about advertising industry self-regulation, which both the United States and United Kingdom got serious about in the latter half of the twentieth century. In 1962, the United Kingdom advertising industry established its Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which adjudicates claims of non-compliance with the British Code of Advertising Practice. Nine years later, the National Advertising Review Council – now known as the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council (ASRC) – was formed in the United States.
Both are non-governmental, industry-funded bodies that self-regulate advertising. And over their similar timelines, they have both matured into respected forces with broadened mandates (both, for instance, are tackling online behavioral advertising) that enjoy near-total industry compliance with their decisions. Of course, they are not identical. While the ASA is something of a “one-stop shop,” the ASRC has established a number of subject-specific investigatory and adjudicatory departments such as the Children’s Advertising Review Unit and the Electronic Retailing Self-Regulation Program. Also, the appellate process is substantially different in the United Kingdom, where appeals cannot go forward until an Independent Reviewer agrees to accept them.
But what fun would it be if we did things the same? That would be like tuning in to Breaking Bad and getting Downton Abbey: Albuquerque.
The Way I See It
• I see advertising industry self-regulation since the 1960s as an almost unqualified success, with enormous benefits to the public (in the form of more honest advertisements), advertisers (in access to efficient dispute resolution), and the image of the advertising industry as a whole
• The success of self-regulation has undoubtedly staved off more restrictive legislation that would have been enacted in its absence, giving the industry both here and in the United Kingdom a greater chance to define its own path.
• I see a critical moment on the horizon with the emergence of concerns around mobile advertising and food marketing to children, giving the industry a chance to again prove the value of self-regulation in those areas.
The Way the Industry Sees It
I sat down with Tim Lefroy, CEO of the Advertising Association, an industry forum critical to shaping the self-regulatory scheme in the United Kingdom, to explore the topic further.
What are the biggest differences you see between the self-regulatory system in the United Kingdom and United States?
We are two nations, divided by different principles and legal systems. You have the First Amendment. In Europe we have the Human Rights Act. In the United Kingdom, where the free exchange of ideas remains highly valued, the reality is somewhere between the two. United States self-regulation ultimately has the Federal Trade Commission as its backstop, but it is administered state-by-state by the Better Business Bureau. Our Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) – the investigator and judge – is completely independent and has been for fifty years. The codes are written and updated by industry and are often enshrined in United Kingdom and European legislation. In part due to the lack of a First Amendment, the United Kingdom is more exposed to the whims of politicians where threats to bans or restrict advertising freedoms in lieu of social policy are commonplace.
Is it important for the public to understand that the advertising industry is policing itself, and if so what’s the best way to get that message out?
Let’s be honest. Whether it’s Fred Bloggs or John Q. Public, advertising is low-priority for most. Our industries and their output pass most people by, most of the time. But if we want politicians to appreciate how self-regulation in advertising works – for industry and for consumers – we must advertise that fact. The ASA has a mission that advertising in all media is legal, decent, honest, and truthful. Those four words have, over the years, been reinforced through advertising. There is a strong correlation in the United Kingdom between trust and confidence in our system and the ASA being active in promoting legal, decent, honest and truthful advertising. A little advertising for advertising can go a long way.
What are the biggest issues on ASA’s agenda today?
The slightly flippant answer is, “how should I know, they are independent.” The reality, of course, is that the ASA does talk to the industry it regulates and unsurprisingly, our challenges are often shared. Chief among them is the shift to digital, and I would like to highlight two points that need to be closely managed. The first is how nuanced marketing communications have become. What constitutes an advertisement online is much more difficult to define than in traditional media, and while extending the ASA’s remit into digital channels was a big first step, it’s probably the beginning rather than the end of change. That native advertising is such an industry buzzword rather underlines that point. And if regulating ads online has been a challenge with commercial communications – where ads are about promoting brands and sales – it will only get more complex if and when the codes extend to cover causes and ideas, as they currently do offline.
Do you think the United Kingdom and United States based self-regulating bodies should be doing more to learn from each other’s views and experiences, particularly in emerging areas like digital advertising?
As recently as 1987, we asked the Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission to answer precisely that question when he was invited to give a “President’s Lecture” at the Advertising Association. I look forward to receiving the reciprocal invitation. Or perhaps it’s about time we extended an invite again…
Do you see any “jurisdictional” conflicts on the horizon among self-regulatory bodies in the area of online advertising, which crosses so many borders?
In a European context, it already is happening. As the Online Behavioral Advertising framework has rolled out, national regulators have had to embrace a new role as complaints handlers. The question is, if a complaint is made in response to an ad viewed in France, from an ad-network based in Ireland, in which jurisdiction is that complaint investigated? Not so much a conflict, but a fact that requires national regulators to work more closely across borders and in Europe we have European Advertising Standards Alliance to do just that..
What’s the coolest thing in your office?
For those of a historical bent, there’s a sculpture of Miss Columbia and Miss Britannia donated by the Advertising Club of New York to the Thirty Club of London in 1924. But in truth, our coolest asset is our young team. We run a fantastic intern program, which feeds into a brilliant group of youngsters. Most of them are taking their first steps into careers in research, public affairs, communications or advertising. Giving them that springboard is cool.