"If a group can spot an ad [that speaks to its agenda], it gives
them an opportunity for PR," said Mr. Dresden. It's not a misuse of
the system -- provided the complainant is honest -- but it's not
historically the core function of the ASA, he added.
Additionally, competitors increasingly lob complaints against
one another, a practice that has become a controversial part of the
U.K.'s system. Richard Warren, co-CEO at London's DLKW Lowe ,
estimated that 90% of ASA complaints come from competitors. ASA
reveals complainants' identities to an advertiser asked to defend
His agency created a Christmas commercial for retailer Morrisons
that recently came under scrutiny for similar reasons as the Asda
ad. While the piece stars a mother prepping for the holidays, it
didn't reference anything specifically about moms. Still, the ASA
complainant said that it implied sexism.
Mr. Warren claimed his ad did not warrant investigation -- it
only happened because people were focusing attention on the Asda
ad, which caused them to look extra suspiciously at all retailers'
holiday ads. He doesn't believe it was Asda that complained about
the Morrisons' ad, suggesting it could have been another retailer,
though he's not certain, since the ASA declined to take action and,
thus, reveal the complainant. But, he said, many times competitors
will put up their friends and acquaintances to complain, in order
to keep their own names out of it.
The ASA in December implemented a new procedure to deal with
that problem, asking the complainant to prove that he or she had
tried to resolve the issue directly with the company before
approaching the ASA. That led to a 46% decrease in competitor
complaints, said an ASA representative. Still, the problem is big
enough that a London agency executive, who has created campaigns
that have come under scrutiny and spoke to Ad Age under condition
of anonymity, said that "it's now standard practice that if a
campaign is out, there will be a complaint." And according to the
ASA, every single complaint is addressed in some form.
The way English law has developed leaves no room for competitors
to address advertisers in court over false, misleading or
distasteful advertising, said Mr. Dresden. In Germany, Ireland and
other parts of Europe, an unfair commercial-practices directive
gives marketers legal recourse against ads they believe are
misleading or unfair. But with no such outlet in the U.K., all
cases go to the ASA.
In 2011, eight out of 10 ads that received the most complaints
got in hot water for issues of offensiveness and sexism. About 120
people work at the ASA, which is funded by a levy paid by
advertisers; 27 of those are complaints executives. It's relatively
efficient, with complaints turned around within five to 10 days.
(When this reporter tested the system with a complaint of her own,
someone at the ASA replied within one business day.)
Mr. Dresden said that among his clients, there is a large degree
of satisfaction with the ASA and the work it does, despite the
number of complaints it handles. Even Mr. Warren, whose own
agency's work is facing "investigation" by the ASA, said that
overall, the body is "in chime with Britain." And even when ads are
investigated, there's a silver lining. The London agency executive
who spoke to Ad Age said that the huge visibility a campaign
receives because of a complaint can raise awareness of the brand or
an ad. "The regulation itself is usually quite fair," this exec