The watchdog's bark is worse than its bite: The body responsible for complaints about television advertising lacks teeth, writes Martin Rosenbaum

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The Independent Online
HOW LARGE is a bite of toast? This peculiar question was studied recently by the Independent Television Commission, which has to ensure that television advertising is legal, decent, honest and truthful. It was considering a complaint from the outraged Federation of Bakers about a Kellogg's commercial, which alleged that there was more fat in one bite of toast with low-fat spread than in a bowlful of cornflakes and skimmed milk.

It was judged that the truth of this claim depended on the size of the bite. On this basis, the ITC condemned the ad as misleading, and it is no longer being shown.

It is not the first time the commission has criticised Kellogg's. In December 1991 the company had to suspend an ad which, the ITC ruled, gave an exaggerated impression of the number of almonds and raisins likely to be found in a box of Golden Oatmeal Crisp.

A monthly stream of ITC reports has created the impression that it is cracking down on misleading, harmful and offensive ads as part of its switch, now completed, from broadcaster to regulator. Copy clearance before transmission has become the job of the television companies themselves, but the ITC remains responsible for assessing complaints after transmission.

The commission has been trying hard to publicise these complaints, in contrast to the low-key approach it adopted in its incarnation as the Independent Broadcasting Authority. But the get- tough image does not seem to be disconcerting the advertising industry. Instead, it is dissatisfied complainants who are criticising the commission for not being tough enough.

Last week the ITC said it received 3,504 complaints about ads in 1992, compared with 2,832 about programmes (of which more than two-fifths were about the scheduling of the religious programme Highway). The most frequent advertising complaints concerned Claire Rayner's commercial for Vespre sanitary towels - it has now been refused transmission by the ITV companies - and a Citroen ad featuring a woman apparently being kidnapped. The 1992 figure represents a considerable increase on the previous four years in which the total was remarkably static at about 2,400.

Since the IBA became the ITC in January 1991, it has ruled that more than 100 ads breached its code. Most were found to be misleading, such as the one which made it seem that Golden Oatmeal Crisp contained nearly twice as many almonds and raisins per cereal flake as it actually did. Others were found to be harmful, such as the Tango ad featuring an orange genie slapping people on the cheeks: this led to a playground craze in which some children were hurt.

The Tango commercial was made by Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury (HHCL), a mid-sized agency described by one ITC official as the 'market leader' in complaint-provoking ads. It also made the Fuji commercials involving a mentally disabled shop assistant and an ostracised Asian mother, which was criticised for mixing social comment with a commercial message.

HHCL's chairman, Rupert Howell, is happy about the way the ITC handles the fuss that his ads create. 'When you do anything different, you tend to stir people up,' he says. 'The ITC does as fair a job as it can. It was fine about the orange genie. It alerted us to the problem, and it was right to pull the ad, because children were being hurt. It was brilliant about the Fuji ads, very positive. Once an issue has been discussed and it agrees, it sticks up for you.'

Mr Howell's view is shared by other agencies against whom the ITC has upheld complaints. These include many from British advertising's top 20, and they generally seem to treat it as a 'fair cop'.

For instance, after the commission ruled that a Bold Ultra ad by Grey London was misleading, Grey's managing director, Scott Sherrard, said: 'The ITC has some good people working for it. That makes the difference. We meet them quite often; we even know some of them socially.'

This rosy view of the ITC, however, is not shared by some complainants. A protest by the anti-sugar pressure group, Action and Information on Sugars (AIS), about the slogan 'A Mars Bar a day helps you work, rest and play', was rejected on the grounds that viewers would not actually think this was a serious nutritional claim. Andrea Castell, of AIS, is angry that Mars was allowed to comment on the AIS evidence, but she was not allowed to comment on Mars's arguments.

The group would like to see a specialist in public dental health on the ITC's medical advisory panel. 'The ITC gives greater consideration to the interests of the advertiser than those of the complainant or the consumer,' Ms Castell says. 'Incorrect information is being given out across the TV screen. It's difficult for us to redress the balance when we're up against huge multinational companies such as Mars. Even if the ITC worked fairly, it would still be a tough job, but it's hard to see us ever winning, no matter how clear-cut the case.'

The AIS is discussing with other food and health groups proposals for new regulatory structures, and will publish its ideas later this year.

Some advertising firms sympathise. Tim Lindsay, managing director of Young & Rubicam, says: 'In my personal view, it's wrong to say 'A Mars Bar a day helps you work, rest and play'. The complainants have a good case. The system has its frustrations, but the consensus in the industry is that we're very lucky to have it the way it is.'