Time to put the brakes on the ASA

Where does the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) get off - or, in this case, dismount? The regulators of how stuff may be flogged on our screens and billboards have decided to encroach on that other bastion of officially approved protection of us vulnerable plebs – the Health and Safety Executive – by deciding that it is not ‘socially responsible’ to show a cyclist riding without a helmet.

The cyclist in question features in a mildly amusing video made by Cycling Scotland, with the message ‘See Cyclist, Think Horse’. No, says the video, don’t feed them sugar lumps and groom their hair! Just pass them at a safe distance when you’re driving your car! The final shot of the film shows a young woman happily trundling along a suburban road as a driver thoughtfully gives her a wide berth. But the fact that her curly tresses were not jammed into a helmet was all too much for the ASA.

As Cycling Scotland points out, it is not illegal in the UK to cycle without a helmet. And there are many who would argue that not having a plastic lid on your noggin is actually safer – because helmets aren’t actually that much use in a serious prang, but wearing one may give the user an exaggerated sense of safety. Moreover, in countries where helmets are compulsory, the response is not safer cyclists, but fewer cyclists altogether.

But the dangers of helmet-free cycling are nothing compared to the dangers of the great and good deciding what we can and cannot see. The ASA may not be a government body, but it clearly takes its lead from legislation and its actions to ban adverts are censorship, pure and simple. Previous clampdowns from the ASA include bans on the poster for an Angeline Jolie film (for glamorising guns), a L’Oréal make-up advert featuring Julia Roberts (too airbrushed), and some promotional posters for Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (for supposedly being offensive to Irish Travellers).

The ASA’s rulings are an insult to our intelligence – and a blow against free expression, too. The only appropriate message for these busybodies is ‘on yer bike!’.

Rob Lyons is associate editor at spiked.

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