Should the advertising watchdog have more bite? – The Irish Times


The Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI) released its second Complaints Bulletin for 2022 on Tuesday.

The findings are always widely covered, especially if the industry watchdog has had to deal with something on the vaguely rude side — an ad that contravenes the “decent” in the industry body’s “legal, decent, honest and truthful” baseline criteria for marketing communications.

Or if there’s a celebrity involved: although The Irish Times already reported last week on one of its findings that an advertisement by Land Rover claiming gardener Diarmuid Gavin was living a more sustainable life by driving one of its vehicles had fallen foul of the ASAI code.

The judgment notes that Land Rover had produced no evidence to back up claims that driving the huge SUV was “planting the seeds of a more sustainable life”. The ad featured in The Irish Times and Examiner — and 28 people complained about it to the ASAI.

Land Rover was instructed not to run the ad again; it appeared last August and September and the company never intended to run it again anyway as “it was a one-off content partnership”.

The previous ASAI bulletin was in January — a long time in the media cycle — and it’s very often the case that a consumer complaint is upheld by the ASAI long after the relevant ad has disappeared from view and memory.

However, removing or amending a rule-breaking ad is the sanction used by the ASAI, combined with “naming and shaming”.

“The name and shame sanction is a powerful one, that is used internationally by our peers,” says Orla Twomey, chief executive of the ASAI, “and, arguably, has a much greater impact rather than a direct financial penalty which may not have any consequences in reality. It also lets consumers and competitors know the kind of code breach involved and reach their own conclusions on any brand impact.”

As an industry-funded, independent, self-regulatory body, it updates and publishes its code of standards and has massive buy-in and compliance from Irish advertisers, but once an ad is out in the world, the ASAI model since it was established 40 years ago, is mostly to wait for a complaint to roll in before considering if its code has been contravened.

It’s a dynamic that always struck me — even when I was working in advertising — as a curious sort of passivity. Shouldn’t a watchdog be ever alert and bark, jump on an ad that breaks the rules and have it pulled the moment the infringement is spotted?

Twomey, however, rejects the idea that the ASAI is not proactive, saying it monitors sectors from time to time, for example alcohol advertising, and if it sees issues liaises with advertisers to correct the problem.

Further, it is a project software-driven pilot in the Irish market to monitor online directed at children in what calls an “education as well as a piece of work”.

Where the ASAI has recently been proactive is in the area of ​​junk food advertising to children.

Voluntary rules for the marketing of high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) foods were launched by government in 2018.

“Because there is no progress [in the Department of Health publishing guidance for advertisers] We have decided that we are going to be bringing those rules in relation to marketing communication into the ASAI code,” Twomey, told the Oireachtas committee on media regulation and online safety in June last year.

The ASAI’s rules on HFSS food and children were launched in December 2021. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) has, since 2013, rules restricting the marketing of HFSS products to children so the move by the ASAI brings advertising in other media into alignment.

The ASAI rules are specific to non-broadcast media and stretch across all types of marketing. For example, from December 1st, commercial sponsorship involving HFSS products for events of particular appeal to primary school-age children will be banned. Existing sponsorship agreements will be allowed until they expire.

Gambling advertising

Twomey told the same Oireachtas committee that “gambling among teenagers has become a concern in society in the last couple of years. It is something we take seriously.”

In the UK, where advertising is overseen by a similar body to the ASAI, rules on gambling advertising as it relates to children are currently being beefed up. Its Committee for Advertising Practice announced in April new rules for gambling — including lottery ads — to “help continue to protect under-18s from gambling-related advertising harms”.

These rules heavily restrict advertising featuring prominent sports people, such as top-flight footballers, celebrities, and youth culture social media influencers with a significant following, for example, TV reality stars. Indeed, anyone “likely to be of strong appeal to children or young people, especially by reflecting or being associated with youth culture.”

Existing rules in the UK say gambling ads must not be of “particular appeal” to children; This new “strong appeal” test raises the bar in that it prohibits content (imagery, themes and characters) that has a strong level of appeal to under-18s regardless of how it is viewed by adults. The rule comes into effect on October 1st.

Twomey says the ASAI has no plans to revise its gambling code as it relates to children and that the industry adheres to it and it offers protection. The Irish rules say gambling ads must not “be likely to be of particular appeal to children, especially by reflecting or being associated with youth culture … And must not be directed at those aged below 18 years through the selection of media or context in which they appear.”

As society explores the impact of gambling across all age groups, it’s a safe bet that those rules will be beefed up in the coming years.

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