Companies that exaggerate their green credentials in ads will face rigorous scrutiny from the advertising watchdog, its chairman, former Labour minister Chris Smith, has warned.
Speaking to MediaGuardian.co.uk in his first major interview since becoming Advertising Standards Authority chairman in July, Smith also promised to make the body “more proactive and higher profile” in the way it deals with consumer complaints.
The ASA this week reported a sharp increase in complaints about advertising using violent imagery, but it is also noting rising public concern about the proliferation of ads in which companies make claims – not always accurate – about their environmental track record.
Smith made it clear these ads will face close scrutiny when complaints are being evaluated, in what is an increasingly important area of adjudication for the organisation.
“This is new, almost virgin territory for us,” he admitted. “We are breaking new ground and this is a growing area, as we are increasingly finding that advertisers are using green claims to sell their products and services and to give them an edge over their rivals.
“They are jumping on the bandwagon about their green claims, but as we make more and more adjudications we are building up a body of solid evidence.
“Whether it’s wind turbines or airlines or cars with claims about CO2 emissions, the claims have to be accurate and the companies have to be able to justify that. My message is that erroneous claims will not slip through the net.”
Smith hosted his first “themed” seminar on Wednesday on the use of violence in advertising, triggered in part by the sharp increase in the number of complaints about the use of violent imagery in ads. A report of the session, in Nottingham, will be sent to the ASA’s decision-making council to help with future judgments.
A member of the government’s Byron inquiry – launched by the prime minister into protecting children from violent and inappropriate imagery – attended the event, Smith revealed.
Drawing his conclusions from the seminar, Smith said: “I think it worked very well. I was anxious that, instead of us just taking the show on the road, we should focus on a particular area or theme.
“We had 40 or so people who came along and it was an excellent opportunity to test the public pulse and for them to tell us whether we are striking the right balance with the decisions we make.
“We always have to think very carefully about deciding where to draw the line, and getting that balance right between free expression and protecting the public, including children.
“One participant said something very interesting which was that violence in advertising gives the suggestion that it’s the solution to a problem and that that in itself was misleading. And there was also concern that violence is increasingly being seen as ‘cool’ – that it is a lifestyle choice.”
Referring to the ASA’s adjudication this week on three posters for the film Shoot ‘Em Up, he argued that the complaint about one – that featured actor Paul Giamatti pointing a gun out of the frame of the poster – might not have been upheld two years ago.
“The guidance then was that because the gun was not pointing directly at the viewer, it was not a serious breach of the code, but we decided this time that because of his eyes and the sense of menace, it ought to be banned.”
He added: “It is important that the ASA is pro-active and high profile and that people know how to complain. It is one of the most effective examples of self-regulation there is. But we can do more.
“I think sometimes people see an advert which angers them, then life goes on and they forget to do anything about it. Their views count enormously and, in fact, just one complaint about an advert will lead to a proper investigation and adjudication.”
Smith was secretary of state for culture, media and sport and a member of Tony Blair’s cabinet from 1997 to 2001. He was dubbed the UK’s first “minister of fun” when the arts job was first elevated to the cabinet.
His brief, which covered everything from football to film, to Fleet Street and the BBC, drew into some of the most controversial issues of the time and gave him useful experience of resolving complaints and disputes in the full glare of the media spotlight.
Smith was named this time last year as ASA chairman, to take over from former Office of Fair Trading boss Gordon Borrie upon his retirement.
He typically devotes two days a week to the post, which he has been given for an initial term of three years. The job sits alongside his other major role as director of the Clore Leadership Programme, which is developing a new generation of leaders for the cultural sector in the UK.
Smith said he was finding the ASA job “great fun”, and that the “sheer variety” of the job was astonishing, as he gets to grips with the advertising of alcohol, gambling, junk food to children and, of course, the impact of the 9pm TV watershed.
So what is likely to be the theme for the ASA’s next big event? You guessed it – green claims.
By Rebecca Smithers
23 November 2007
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