You can stare. Mr Graham says so

The Advertising Standards Authority has been policing British decency (and the honesty of our admen) for 40 years now. Can its new head ensure it has a role in the 21st century?

Christopher Graham has a mission - and it's a tricky one: to reposition ad industry watchdog the Advertising Standards Authority for the 21st century. ASA, which is responsible for overseeing advertising self-regulation throughout print media, the internet and cinema, has grown familiar with criticism both from inside adland (for being overly conservative) and beyond (for lacking teeth). Now it's undertaking a wide-ranging review - to ensure it better meets the challenges posed by new media - and a major charm offensive to ensure its role is better understood.

Christopher Graham has a mission - and it's a tricky one: to reposition ad industry watchdog the Advertising Standards Authority for the 21st century. ASA, which is responsible for overseeing advertising self-regulation throughout print media, the internet and cinema, has grown familiar with criticism both from inside adland (for being overly conservative) and beyond (for lacking teeth). Now it's undertaking a wide-ranging review - to ensure it better meets the challenges posed by new media - and a major charm offensive to ensure its role is better understood.

The initiative is little short of radical for an organisation fast approaching 40 whose structures have remained little changed in as many years. True, the codes of practice that it polices are reviewed every four years, but these guidelines are set not by ASA but by adland itself. About time, then, for a period of self-assessment, and who better to oversee it than Christopher Graham, recently appointed director general of ASA?

It may seem strange that someone who readily admits to having no past experience of or background in the ad industry is in this role. But as ASA loses no opportunity to point out, the majority of members of its Council - the great and good who rule on the merit or otherwise of complaints about "advertising excess" - come from outside the industry. Graham marries the promise of independence with a solid track record in diplomacy and administration: his last job was as Secretary of the BBC where he was responsible for compliance and accountability and headed the internal complaints unit.

"Digital commerce has already changed how advertising works and advertising regulation must keep up with the game," he says. "We must operate more efficiently and effectively to handle the 12,000 or so complaints we get each year more effectively" (at present, ASA staff "eyeball" some 10,000 ads each week). Secondly, Graham believes ASA needs to "reconnect" with the ad industry, working more closely with advertisers and agencies at all levels to win "compliance through consent". Finally, he adds, it needs to become more aware of its "stakeholders" - especially those outside the industry - to be "more outward looking, more customer-focused".

Not that there is anything particularly wrong with ASA, Graham is quick to stress. On the contrary, he believes it's done pretty well so far. "We are well-respected as the model for self regulation in this country," he claims. "There is general confidence both from inside and outside the industry that we are pretty good - even when people don't love us, they respect us." And this despite a seemingly never-ending round of grumbles and complaints from agency creatives peeved at the latest censure, or Daily Mail readers claiming it has not gone far enough.

Just last week Lib Dem frontbench consumer affairs spokesman Norman Baker was reportedly drawing up plans to warn ASA it will call for a statutory body to police advertising unless the authority takes a tougher line on persistent offenders. This followed controversy earlier this month following an ASA adjudication against SmithKline Beecham, the makers of Ribena ToothKind, for making misleading and unsubstantiated claims. SmithKline Beecham is now to seek a judicial review of ASA's decision claiming the watchdog was not equipped to evaluate the claims.

Industry sources, meanwhile, privately express frustration modified by an acceptance that the alternative to the current system would be worse: statutory regulation to guard against advertising excess.

"They're a bit of a mystery organisation in my view," one mid-ranking agency creative observes. "Who are these people to judge whether my ad goes too close to the bone, and how do they make their decisions?" Consistency is an issue raised by another agency executive: "When they slam one campaign for one thing, then let another of the hook despite generating more complaints, it makes you wonder." Adds a third: "A re-assessment of how advertising regulation is currently handled in the UK, and whether we need three regulators (aside from ASA, the ITC handles TV advertising and the Radio Authority oversees campaigns) is long overdue."

A tough time to be in the DG's seat then. But Graham is unperturbed. "We've had 11 judicial reviews and lost only one, more than 10 years ago," he coolly observers. "With Ribena ToothKind, as in every case where we investigate the veracity of claims, we sent out for technical advice from independent experts. In essence, it's a simple matter: to stay within the code's rules you have to hold substantial evidence for a claim before you make it - which was not evident in this case."

Substantiating claims to ensure ads are legal, honest and true makes up the bulk of the authority's monitoring work. What tends to grab more headlines, however, are complaints and rulings relating to taste and decency. Recent decisions not to uphold 312 complaints against the "Love books?" poster for bol.com featuring a naked couple (reading) in bed, for example, left some people enraged.

ASA's role is to assess whether there has been "widespread offence" and context is all. In an attempt to keep up to speed with changing public attitudes and tastes, it runs regular events to gauge public attitudes. Research is now underway to assess particular words likely to upset if they were included in an ad. As attitudes can fluctuate quite considerably over relatively short periods of time, constant monitoring and regular contact with consumers is essential. As is an awareness of the activitiesof newspaper columnists and lobbyists.

"It's not unusual to receive letters that begin 'I've not seen the ad, but I've read, or heard, that ...'," Graham observes. A recent ad featuring a calf and the line: "When I'm a burger I want to be washed down with Irn Bru" provoked many from the vegetarian lobby to complain not about the ad but its sentiment, he adds.

Perhaps the biggest criticism ASA regularly receives, however, relates to its power of sanction (or lack of it, detractors complain). When complaints are upheld, ASA publishes details in its monthly bulletin and these, in turn, are invariably reported in the newspapers. If this doesn't work, ASA can always refer a bad advertiser to the Office of Fair Trading. Although this happens only rarely, Graham has done just this to two advertisers in the past ten days - one for making unsubstantiated and misleading claims that its product enables leaded petrol engines to run on unleaded petrol, the other for unproven healthcare claims for a range of magnetic therapy products.

Bad publicity is a powerful sanction, Graham believes, adding: "If we were toothless, why would anyone be taking us to a judicial review?" Which is why he remains quietly confident that despite the need to change, ASA won't have to change too much to secure a foothold in tomorrow's media regulation landscape.

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