Magazine article Marketing

Complaints Chaos at the Asa?: Companies Using the ASA to Complain about Their Competitors Risk Undermining the Entire Self Regulatory System, Writes Daniel Rogers

Magazine article Marketing

Complaints Chaos at the Asa?: Companies Using the ASA to Complain about Their Competitors Risk Undermining the Entire Self Regulatory System, Writes Daniel Rogers

Article excerpt

Advertising is designed to get a reaction. The question is: who reacts? With luck it's the consumer. Sometimes it's the media but, increasingly, it's the competition.

Tesco's recent high-profile pricecutting campaign has drawn official complaints from Sainsbury's, Asda and Boots. Van den Bergh Foods and McNeil Consumer Nutritional have clashed over each other's cholesterol reduction claims. Most recently, Glaxo Smith Kline slammed Colgate Palmolive for claiming Colgate Whitening toothpaste has a 'superior' anti-stain formula.

It's instinctive for advertisers to push back the boundaries and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is long used to slapping down those who overstep the mark whether cynically or not.

When YSL's Opium perfume persuaded model Sophie Dahl to pose for a billboard, the company probably didn't expect it to be the most complained-about advertisement of the past five years.

When French Connection placed an ad in the Evening Standard claiming its new Oxford Street store would be the 'world's biggest fcuk', the outrage was integral to its strategy.

But the ASA is less comfortable with the recent surge in high-profile brands apparently using the ASA's rules to sabotage their competitors' campaigns.

At the ISBA conference earlier this year, ASA chairman Lord Borne slammed advertisers for spending too much time focusing on their competitors' advertising rather than their own. He revealed that 10% of the complaints dealt with by the ASA last year came from competitors and that considerably more than 10% of its resources go on such complaints because they tend to require legal scrutiny. "Is this really what the ASA is for?" he asked. But the industry has failed to heed Lord Borrie's warning.

"It's rough and tough in highly competitive markets such as supermarkets and telecoms," says Christopher Graham, director-general of the ASA. "These markets are going to be even tougher as we head into a trade downturn. I think we're already seeing that with the supermarkets."

He is quick to defend advertisers' right to complain about competitors. "It comes with the territory," he says. "After protecting consumers, our second main purpose is to ensure fair competition. There are some consumer benefits to this activity -- very often it's the players in the market who understand the weaknesses in a campaign and can flush out the issues on behalf of consumers."

Privately, however, ASA executives recognise they are in serious danger of getting bogged down in these tit-for-tat disputes, which are draining the watchdog's resources.

There is another reason why these cases are bad news. "They are poor publicity for the ASA," says one marketing director of a leading FMCG brand. "The coverage creates the perception that a lot of product claims are misleading, destroying the overall credibility of advertising. It also weakens the ASA's raison d'etre -- as an effective independent guardian of the consumer."

The latter point is particularly poignant in the context of the wider regulatory environment. The government is currently reviewing its whole approach to media regulation as part of the forthcoming Communications Bill, central to which is the creation of super regulator Ofcom.

White papers favour Ofcom combining the roles of the existing state controlled Independent Television Commission (ITC),the Broadcasting Standards Commission (BS C), the Radio Authority, the Radiocommunications Agency and the telecoms regulator Oftel.

Feedback from the government suggests that light-touch self-regulators such as the ASA or the travel industry's ABTA are seen as good models, cutting down on bureaucracy and government spending.

Even policy think-tank the National Consumer Council (NCC) has been supportive. "More than half of the ASA's adjudication council is independent from the industry, one of our key criteria for an effective self-regulator," says an NCC spokeswoman. …

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