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New police force for websites. Now, that’'ll be interesting!

09:19 on Fri, 13 Nov 2009 | Industry Comment | 0 Comments

According to an article in Revolution this week, the good old Advertising Standards Authority could be set to become the new regulatory authority which will, for the first time, scrutinise the content on brand websites.

My reaction?

Well, I’m all for accuracy, good taste and having everyone fight it out on a level playing field.
So in theory, terrific. I'm all for it.

But theory is one thing, reality quite another, as we all well know.

I’m sorry but I speak from experience here, having spent most of my career in the offline advertising world, many years of that as a copywriter and Creative Director. I have witnessed the ASA from afar, and on the rare occasion, the ‘raisin-sharp’ teeth of the regulatory machine close up.

Time and again we would hear the same story. Campaign starts running, consumers start complaining – or more likely, competitive brands under the guise of consumers start complaining. By the time enough complaints have been made to signify a reason for the ASA to even look into it, let alone meet about it, then pass judgement on it, before finally handing out the punishment, the campaign has finished.

‘Hold on a minute’, I hear you say, ‘that’s not a fair comparison, ad campaigns are different from websites in that the content is often permanent, so this would not be a reason to doubt the proposed move.’

Very true, but I am merely trying to give an insight into the speed and efficacy of this less-than-progressive body. To be fair, much of this is probably due to the lack of resourcing and bodies at the ASA – although the industry does pay a levy to fund the organisation. Obviously not enough!

Even on the occasions they did flex their muscles, it was more Mr Muscle than David Hay.

As an avid subscriber to the must-read ‘ASA weekly newsletter’ in those days, I couldn’t believe the number of times the same brands (some big household names) appeared over a 12 month period – yet the punishments never seemed more than a slap on the wrist and a polite request to change the offending sentence or photo. To see the serial offenders getting away with this on a month by month basis hardly gave the arbiters of best practice any encouragement to keep playing by the rules.

And that is precisely my worry with this new proposal for the same ASA to police our online industry.

All sorts of questions spring to mind. Questions such as how many additional ASA people will Google need to fund with millions of websites out there? Will we get to the stage where we all have to follow a little book like the Code of Advertising Practice (CAP) just like ad agencies do? Will every piece of content we are unsure about need to be passed by the ‘we only meet once a week’ CAP committee before we can even put it live?

Just think about the time, the admin, the sheer loss of efficiency, let alone the extra cost we will have to pass on to our clients footing the bill. And all the time, those of us that will suffer will be the very ones that care enough to stay within the rules. Those that don’t will carry on overstepping the mark regardless - unless the ASA’s punishments and powers under Google’s guidance can be radically overhauled. Surely they will need to look at ‘penalising’ or ‘banning’ sites for repeat offences rather than the polite request to make the required content amendments.

I’m sorry but it’s the only way I could ever see it working, but such a transformation just doesn’t sit with what I have come to know about the culture, ethos and power of the ASA.

We all know it is dangerous to pre-judge and maybe, just maybe, the ASA has changed in the four years I’ve been ‘online’ and just maybe all I’ve spouted off here is nothing more than an out of date viewpoint.

I sincerely hope it is, but somehow I can't quite imagine it. Let's wait and see if I'm right.

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