The new chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), Lord David Currie, has some experience when it comes to leading regulators. Back in 2002, he became the first chairman of the newly-created Office of Communications, or Ofcom, before becoming the chairman of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in 2012.
With that in mind, he has some idea of what makes a good regulator. And the key aspect is respect, he says, in an interview with Marketing Week less than two weeks after taking on the new role.
“Respect from the industry and from consumers – you have to have both sides of it. It’s no good being in cahoots with the industry if consumers don’t think you are doing a good job, and vice versa,” he explains.
“That respect often comes from really understanding the issues. A regulator probably can’t know more about the businesses it is regulating than the businesses themselves. But it can understand more about the overall environment and therefore the issues that are facing business. That is a very powerful tool.”
Concerns for advertisers
The issues facing the advertising industry are manifold. They include Brexit and its impact on ad budgets and the movement of talent, the growing influence of technology, and changes in public opinion. And for the ASA there is always the need to prove that self-regulation works.
“One challenge is to make sure self-regulation is regarded as a valid model. Lord Stephenson on the opposition benches [in the House of Lords] was rather critical about the self-regulatory nature of advertising – not that he could point to any defects, just that in principle he thought it was a bad idea. The argument needs to continually be made and I’m in a good position to do that,” he says.
We want to make sure the claims made are valid because otherwise consumers are misled to make the wrong decisions.
Lord Currie, ASA
Currie is himself a fan of advertising. He describes himself as a “defunct economist”, having spent a number of years as a professor of economics before switching to the regulatory world. But that background means he believes advertising, or getting people to buy more stuff, is important.
“Advertising is essential for getting your message out, entering new markets, helping to inform consumers, which is why the misleadingness criteria [for banning ads] are so important. We want to make sure the claims made are valid because otherwise consumers are misled to make the wrong decisions. It is economically important and culturally important and commercially important,” he says.
“Some [ads] are fantastically entertaining, some are truly uplifting, some are incomprehensible to me and some are downright bad – not sufficiently bad to cause offence but just bad. And that’s true of all creative output; the nature of creativity is you can get it wrong. But I think in general people find them entertaining and they are part of culture.”
Consumers’ changing attitudes
One of the big challenges for the ASA is keeping up with shifting public sentiment. Nowhere is that more obvious at the moment than in gambling. The government’s long-awaited review of the gambling sector was published at the end of October, which included ad guidance from the ASA.
According to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the new guidance, which is to be drawn up by the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP), will be designed to “help protect those at risk of problem gambling, and children and young people, by ensuring that the content of gambling adverts does not encourage impulsive or socially irresponsible gambling”.
Currie says the ad regulator has been “quite tough” on individual ads. Earlier this week it banned an ad from