When spiked editor Brendan O’Neill wrote a piece in 2006 titled ‘Advertising is a free-speech issue’, there were a few heads being scratched, even among spiked readers. But the recent shenanigans at the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) only confirm O’Neill’s point.
In July, the ASA rejected a complaint made by the smokers’ right group Forest about yet another tendentious and grisly anti-smoking advert, first shown in December 2012. Over 18 months after the Department of Health advert was first shown, and after interminable delays to give the DoH time to find some evidence for the claims in the advert (you would think it would have appropriate evidence before it showed the ad), the ASA Council - a motley crew of the chattering classes if ever there was one - decided to approve the ad, despite three separate recommendations from its own executive to uphold the complaint. It seems that the ASA’s mission to ensure advertising is ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’ doesn’t apply when there is a Good Lie to be told - in this case, a novel attempt to scare the bejesus out of smokers.
Then last week, the ASA ruled against an advert for supermarket chain Morrisons. The ad showed a mother preparing a salad-laden burger for her daughter, who proceeds to take out all the ‘healthy’ stuff and scoff the burger and bun alone. The ASA ruling stated: ‘Because we considered the ad placed an emphasis on the burger being the preferable option to the salad, we concluded it condoned poor nutritional habits or an unhealthy lifestyle, especially in children, and that it disparaged good dietary practice.’ The advert was entirely ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’, built on the comedy of recognition - in this case, that kids drive parents mad by undermining any attempt to give them boring healthy food. That didn’t matter to the ASA, however.
In short, a humourless elite with its own agenda about the world – in this case, the need to ram the message about healthy living down our throats – decided to use its power to decide what can and cannot be said. Sounds just like censorship to me. If we believe in free expression, we need to scrap the ASA.
Rob Lyons is a spiked columnist.