Curbing adland's over-enthusiasm

Lord Smith tells Martin Hickman of his delicate job as watchdog of Britain's advertising industry

As a professional arbiter of moral, social and cultural values, Lord Smith of Finsbury takes as broad a view of the advertising industry as the panoramic one he has from his 25th floor office in Millbank Tower, close to the Houses of Parliament.

The chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority has to deliberate on some thorny issues. Is Shell helping the planet by extracting oil from Canada's tar sands? Can the manufacturers of four by four drives vaunt their environmental credentials? And, an issue last year, are gyrating cartoon zebras, bears and peacocks offensive, as 286 complainants argued?

It's a job that often lands him and the ASA in controversy. Last year, the ASA's 15-strong council decided to reject 840 complaints about a Barnardo's advert that showed a father beating his daughter, who was shown as later becoming a homeless drug addict. Conversely, the ASA did ban a jocular Courage beer advert for suggesting that alcohol boosted the confidence of a man whose partner asked him whether her bottom looked big.

Is the ASA out of tune with the public? Choosing his words with the care of a career politician, Lord Smith – whose two-and-a-half-day-a-week job earns him £60,000 – indicates that decisions are not always clear-cut. "Take the example of the most complained-about ad last year – the Barnardo's ad with the scene of the father slapping his daughter; when that act of violence happens you automatically recoil. It's a very upsetting and disturbing moment. We have to decide is this ad offensive because of that or not? And we had to take into account the fact that it was an ad for a highly-respected national charity, that it was raising very strongly the issue of child abuse," he says.

"These are not easy decisions. We could have gone either way on our discussions on that. We had a long discussion and what ultimately we have to try and do, as a group of 12 or 15 people, is to come to a common-sense judgement about what a reasonable consumer would expect us to do. Sometimes we will probably get it wrong, but on the whole I like to think we get it right."

A view not seemingly held by the 2,954 members of the public who railed against the top 10 most complained-about ads last year – none of which were banned by the ASA.

Overall, the number of complaints upheld rose by 27 per cent. In response to 26,433 complaints, 2,475 ads were changed or withdrawn. This, says Lord Smith, is a sign of a "serious regulator" doing a serious job. As the credit crunch bites, he is concerned there are two types of ads that can mislead the public.

"Comparative pricing ads can be very misleading," he explains. "The classic example is where you have one supermarket which fills up a shopping trolley with a selective basket of items, compares it with a supposedly identical shopping basket from another supermarket and says 75 of these 80 items are cheaper with us. When you actually drill down what you find is some of the items are on special promotion on a very temporary basis and some of the items are not actually the same as the ones in the other shopping basket."

Lord Smith, 57, is also concerned about ads that offer loan services, "which say 'consolidate all your loans with us and everything will be alright'. There have been ads during the last year that gave the impression that taking out a consolidated loan was an easy and light-hearted thing."

The ASA held a summit last year to clarify rules on environmental marketing – an important issue for Lord Smith, whose other part-time job is chairman of the Environment Agency, which provides the Millbank office.

The former Labour health spokesman won't say whether the 34 per cent drop in junk food ads shown to children under new rules is sufficient. But he is clear that the Courage ad had to be banned. "I wasn't surprised by the controversy because it's rather a good, witty ad. Our problem is that it is a prima facie case of a breach of the code. If we were judging ads on whether we liked them or not, then sometimes we might reach different decisions, but the code very explicitly says you cannot advertise alcohol in way that suggests the consumption of alcohol will boost confidence."

He is adamant that those who sit around the ASA table in judgment of ads will listen to discussion and, on occasion, change their minds. "As someone who has come through a lifetime of politics, this is a rare phenomenon," he says. "But it does show the degree of care and intelligence and analysis that we try to bring to bear on issues which are not black and white."