As many advertisers complain they face too many rules and others outside the industry demand still more, Beverly Cramp takes a critical look at the maze of UK advertising regulation
Philip Circus, legal affairs director at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, speaks for many when he laments the growing body of legislation he claims has engulfed the advertising industry. "Twenty years ago there were hardly any laws. Now we're drowning in them," he says.
Advertisers are having to leap through countless regulatory hoops in the UK and face an even more bewildering array of laws in Europe. A maze of different rules on alcohol, pharmaceutical, cigarette and toy advertising from different EU member nations make cross-border campaigns a nightmare.
The EU is tackling this with a new Green Paper aimed at standardising pan-European regulations, but the situation in the UK does not look to be getting any easier for advertisers.
Particularly depressing is the sight of the British Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC) squabbling with the Radio Advertising Clearance Centre (RACC) over the sharing of experts to vet ads. If the regulatory bodies themselves cannot see eye to eye, what hope is there for the advertisers who have to use them?
"After having one of the most interventionist governments in the field of advertising and marketing, it's a hell of a job keeping track of all the legislation," says Circus. "One temporary minister is no match for half a million civil servants with a vested interest in regulation."
Circus was introduced to the frustrations of statutory law shortly after embarking on his career in the late 70s. A law was introduced to help car-buyers make more reliable decisions on a car's fuel consumption by requiring advertisers to include official government tests whenever manufacturers' claims were advertised.
Circus says the government failed to realise that to include the many sets of official data in a television or radio ad was unrealistic. That meant car manufacturers simply ceased to refer to fuel consumption at all.
"The consumer is denied information about fuel consumption as a consequence of a statutory provision designed to give him information about fuel consumption," Circus says.
This demonstrates the growing belief that regulation is required to deal with fraudulent traders, but that too much of it is bad for consumers. To paraphrase an old saying, the end result of trying to shield people from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.
Circus claims the argument about consumer protection is a political one based on personal values. He says there are those who wish for less regulation, and an associated freer society, and those who do not.
Other industry watchdogs insist advertising should be more regulated to banish its harmful effects. Critics argue that self-regulation has not gone far enough and that the industry is abusing its power to influence consumers. This is the view of Geoffrey Cannon, chairman of the National Food Alliance (NFA), a consumer group concerned with food issues in the UK and one of many pressure groups that advertisers have to contend with.
"We recognise that advertising is a part of the fabric of our society and we have nothing against it in principle. But its attitude towards cigarette advertising, for example, is socially irresponsible and outrageous. Not all ad agencies advocate cigarette advertising and we appreciate the stance of those, like Abbott Mead Vickers, that refuse to handle such accounts," says Cannon.
Food for thought
As a representative of the NFA, Cannon sat on the government's Nutrition Task Force, whose goal was to examine ways to improve the health of the nation. He is convinced there should be more regulation governing food advertising, particularly in view of what he sees as a failure in self-regulation. "Our position has hardened and if the voluntary path is rejected the only route open is the statutory route. …