There's angst in adland over whose truth counts

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The Independent Online

In philosophy, truth is an absolute. Too often in marketing, truth is a matter of opinion. Advertising messages are "controlled" far more than the editorial that they interrupt: however, these controls and the way they are enforced frequently cause angst in adland.

In philosophy, truth is an absolute. Too often in marketing, truth is a matter of opinion. Advertising messages are "controlled" far more than the editorial that they interrupt: however, these controls and the way they are enforced frequently cause angst in adland.

In the UK, we prefer not to complicate our lives unnecessarily and avoid limiting commercial freedom through the intervention of governments and civil service bureaucracy. But in much of Europe, such a laissez-faire attitude tends to be met with Gallic shrugs, Teutonic coolness and a rap over the knuckles from Scandinavian nannies.

How, the doubters ask, can a group of highly competitive ad agencies - whose working methods often reflect unbridled capitalism and whose role is to "manipulate" facts so as to emphasise positives and obfuscate negatives - be trusted to monitor their own excesses?

There are even some in this country who are less than enthusiastic about the system. But what tends to win the day is the single, generally recognised fact that, within the bounds of reason and given the natural imperfections of all things human, it actually does work.

The British system is pretty straightforward. The Commission on Advertising Practice committee, a mixture of industry and "lay" people, creates the rules of how we can and cannot advertise a brand. The Advertising Standards Authority - which is financed by all members of the advertising industry, but staffed by people independent of any agency, media contractor or advertiser - is tasked with interpreting those rules and adjudicating on complaints it receives from the public.

And every month, a small but significant bunch of advertisers and their agencies is publicly pilloried for breaking the rules or for over-stepping the mark in some way; and the offending ads are banned.

So why the angst? Well, despite the apparent simplicity of the procedure and the goodwill of all involved, ASA's job is not straightforward, as Truth is rarely incontrovertible. Their role puts them into the position of having to choose between "Truths". What do people truly feel in matters of public taste? And even when there are "facts" involved, which fact is closer to the Truth?

Let's face it; public taste is difficult to define. It is an "average" of prevailing attitudes - an artificial consensus, and one that is changing constantly. Just think of the media in which our advertising appears. Will The Sun reader and The Independent reader find the same ads offensive? If not, who has got it right? Perhaps the Daily Mail, the barometer of Middle England's tastes and peccadilloes, has the only true perspective?

In a previous existence at another agency, I fought long and hard for our right to use disturbing images to advertise the Barnardo's children's charity. Some people felt that the pictures were "offensive", and one newspaper decided unilaterally not to run one of the ads. My response was that the campaign illustrated a disturbing reality that confronts Barnardo's workers every day of their lives, and the only offensive thing was the self-righteous belief of the comfortable middle class that they should be allowed to insulate themselves against it.

We won. But in practice, while handling issues of morality and taste may seem like juggling with soot, the truly messy problems can arise, paradoxically, when "facts" are involved.

The ASA must decide if a brand has been promoted in a "legal, decent and honest" way according to current rules, but it does not have the right to make a judgment on the brand itself. Yet sometimes it finds itself in the difficult situation where the brand and its advertising are inextricably linked, and to make a negative judgment on an ad can appear perilously close to casting aspersions on the brand itself.

This inevitably happens with more technical or "science-based" products. The advertiser provides scientific support for claims made in its advertising. The ASA, which, of course, does not have the expertise to know if this support is fair, may defer to the authority of that support or use another "expert's" advice. And in no time at all, it can be a case of your experts and my experts against our experts!

Whose truth do you believe?

Last month, our clients at SmithKline Beecham were understandably outraged by the ASA ruling against the claims made in an ad for Ribena Toothkind, a brand that can proudly boast it is the only soft drink accredited by the British Dental Association. Indeed, so certain are they of their rights to make the claim that the advertiser is seeking a judicial review on the ASA's decision.

But, for all its human failings - and with Ribena as a client of my agency it is difficult for me to see this ruling as demonstrating anything else - none of us would favour a move to an advertising environment dogged by interventionist law and government interference.

At the end of the day - as with judicial procedures in all walks of life - the rules or laws are, in a sense, rather less important than the way they are interpreted and implemented.

As Keats wrote: "Beauty is Truth, Truth beauty". And, as we all know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

* Martin Smith is chief executive officer of Grey Worldwide, London