Watchdog may allow TV adverts for escorts

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A radical review that would allow television advertising for previously "no go" subjects such as escort agencies, hair loss clinics and psychiatry was announced yesterday by the Independent Television Commission.

The watchdog proposed lifting a ban on celebrity testimonials to advertise medicines, and those on private investigators, pregnancy testing services, hypnotists, and some religious advertising.

If approved by commission members next year, the recommendations would herald the most radical shake-up of television advertising for decades. Many proposed chan-ges were simply streamlining, but the commission said they may cause a fundamental shift in what appears on our screens.

"We are not proposing wholesale deregulation but the right level of regulation to reflect the greater awareness of the consumer and the changing broadcast marketplace," said Stephen Locke, director of advertising and sponsorship. "[But] we begin this consultation with the firm commitment that any deregulation of the code will not undermine the fundamental principles of viewer protection, which will be as stringently applied to any of the proposed areas of advertising as they are to all existing ones."

The biggest changes are likely to be allowing religious organisations to advertise, although the commission says that this is with the view to "church roof appeals", more than American-style television evangelists - and the advertising of "medical" and counselling services. Pornographic magazines may be allowed to screen adverts late at night, in "appropriate" settings.

But they must not be misleading, must avoid offence and harm, and must protect children and vulnerable people. A spokeswoman used the ban on "the occult" as an example.

"There isn't currently a clear definition of what is the occult. This review is looking at whether there are other groups which can't advertise because they're classed in that area - like astrologists," she said. "But if it was clear the advertisement was for a cult, say, that would not be allowed because of rules protecting the vulnerable."

Escort agencies could advertise only during appropriate programming. "There's no suggestion that there will be scantily clad women running around between children's shows," said the spokeswoman.

Rules to remain include a ban on advertising for guns and gun clubs, a requirement to show the price of children's toys over £25, and a ban on advertising high-risk investments. Political advertising by organisations such as Greenpeace and Amnesty will stay banned.