We have been misinformed

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The Independent Online
Overall, I have faith in the value of the Advertising Standards Authority and my starting point is simple: I do believe that advertising needs to be regulated, for its own good and that of the consumer. And I prefer this regulation to be carried out not by some quango, but by a knowledgeable self-regulatory body such as the ASA.

So I feel terribly let down when it puts its collective foot in it, as I believe it has done in its recent criticism of various environmental pressure groups and charities. The ASA accuses them of "misinforming people by exaggerating or stretching the truth, exploiting the trust that the public have ..." in them.

A Greenpeace advertisement, it says, was misleading because it did not conclusively link chemicals dumped at sea with shrunken male genitalia. A Friends of the Earth cinema advertisement did not wholly justify claims of desecration of the world's mahogany resource. And a press advertisement which pointed out, on behalf of Animal Welfare, that before committing serial murders Jeffrey Dahmer mutilated small animals, was deemed shocking and offensive simply because it recounted his story.

The ASA has used two grounds of assault: the quasi-objective accusation of unproven facts, and the more subjective one of offensiveness. Let's deal with the second one first. We have just experienced a year or more of gruesome OJ overdose, several horribly graphic and distressing cases of child murder, and no doubt there will be weeks of feasting on the Rosemary West case. Let us not forget that in the same year as Dahmer committed serial murder, society chose to honour the depiction of that practice by making The Silence of the Lambs an Oscar-winning film. And Animal Welfare is being offensive?

What Dahmer did is shocking; the plain telling of that story in a broadsheet newspaper patently is not, and the ASA ought to be made to stand in the corner of the classroom until it has worked out the difference.

The charge of unproven facts attracts me. Being unable conclusively to prove something has now become synonymous with misinformation and exaggeration, has it? If I argued with the ASA that, in a good cause, it is sometimes necessary to stretch the truth, it would come down on me like a sculpture of bricks. But do you remember "Labour's Double Whammy"? Do you recall an entire Tory election campaign fought on the "we-won't-tax-you-but-they- will-lots" platform? Might that also have been misinformation or exaggeration? And having bought the Tory party, we cannot take it back to the shop the minute we find the claim faulty, can we?

I suspect the ASA of double standards here. Greenpeace is an easy target; Tories less so. The charge of offensiveness should be dismissed, in this context, as irrelevant; and on the charge of misinformation we, the jury, find the precedent has been set by the Government.

The writer is a director of McCann-Erickson Advertising Limited.