Critics say proposed Australian watchdog lacks teeth

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SYDNEY -- Consumer groups have given a cool reception to the Australian Association of National Advertisers' (AANA) proposed new self-regulatory and public complaints handling code, unveiled last week. The defunct Advertising Standards Council, disbanded last December, has been replaced by two bodies: an Advertising Standards Board (ASB) and an Advertising Claims Board (ACB). They are not expected to be operational for another six months. A major complaint by critics is that the new system has no teeth: "The penalties are like being flogged with the proverbial warm lettuce," said one.

The ASB, comprising five members drawn from a wide cross-section of the community, will meet monthly to consider complaints about taste and decency "with regard to prevailing community values." If a complaint is upheld, the ASB will request the advertiser to respond -- but compliance is voluntary. If the advertiser fails to respond, the ASB decision will be sent to the appropriate media proprietor and possibly the relevant government authority.

The ACB, staffed by three industry lawyers, will handle complaints from competitors, with complainants having to lodge a $2,350 non- returnable fee.

"Our proposed voluntary self-regulatory system does not meet the bureaucratic model of co-regulation favored by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission," admitted Robert Koltai, AANA v-p and a senior executive with Colgate- Palmolive Australia. "Our new system does not apply anti-competitive sanctions and does not encourage collective media boycotts of advertisements.

"In taking this approach, the AANA is steadfast in the view that it is totally inappropriate for a private regulatory system to have the power to interfere with the commercial rights of trading corporations."

The AANA proposals have not been sanctioned by either the ACCC or the Australian Consumers' Association and are likely to be challenged.

Copyright May 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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