Legal, decent, honest, truthful over 35 years, the principles of the advertising industry's watchdog have meant different things to different sections of society. In the tug of war between tile advertiser and the consumer, the moral and the meaningful message, can the Advertising Standards Authority continue to keep its grip?
The Advertising Standards Authority celebrates its 35th anniversary this week. As it enters middle age, the watchdog is under attack as never before - accused by some of being an aggressive beast that savages business freedoms while others, the Consumer's Association in particular, view it as the toothless pet of commercial interests.
Director-general Matti Alderson rejects talk of a mid-life crisis at the ASA. "We are in no doubt about what we are, what our role is and where we are going," she says. "The fact that we are getting so much flak from both sides is actually a mark of our success. It means that we are striking a balance between protecting the consumer, which is our first duty, while infringing as little as possible on commercial freedom."
The ASA may be clear about its role and direction but perhaps the confusion in society at large results from the contradictions and complications that surrounded its birth.
It was set up in 1962 as an independent body by the advertising industry in response to the increasing influence of television and the embryonic consumer movement. Its role was (and remains) to enforce the Code of Advertising Practice which had been produced by the industry a year before.
In other words the ASA is an independent organisation representing the consumer, funded by the advertising industry (through a 0.1% levy on ad spends) to enforce a code developed by the advertising industry. It has no government backing and only a quasi-legal status. It is hardly surprising that many within the industry are unclear where its first duty lies and many outside the industry doubt its independence.
This confusion is made worse by the fact that its apparently simple mission - to ensure that all non-broadcast advertisements in the UK are legal, decent, honest and truthful - is a target that has been constantly moving and fragmenting, sometimes with frightening speed, throughout its life.
For instance, if in 1962 you had wanted to advertise the life-enhancing qualities of your heavy rolling tobacco with the copyline 'Women like a good shag', quite likely no one would have even raised an eyebrow.
You would merely have had to be able to prove that women really are partial to coarsely shredded smoking mixture, if anyone challenged your statement. It wasn't until 1975 that rules were introduced to say that smoking could not be associated with social, sexual or romantic success.
The other major sector in which the facts have changed is alcohol. In the early 60s it was still possible for the makers of Mackesons stout to claim 'It looks good, it tastes good, and by golly it does you good'.…