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.