The advent of the Consumer Protection Act and a Consumer Council, plus growing pressure on media owner margins, may force advertising’s long-standing ‘referee’, the Advertising Standards Authority, to close. Sandra Gordon considers the scenario.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has existed for over 20 years. Initially run on a shoe-string budget, it was started as a body to ensure that advertisers stuck to a code that, on the one hand protected consumers from unscrupulous messaging and, on the other, censured advertisers who fell foul of what is loosely defined as ‘good and proper’ advertising.
What it has become, though, is an association used all-too-frequently by marketers to settle claims of unfair and/or misleading advertising against competitors, settle business scores, or simply to disrupt the campaigns of business rivals.
The ASA is financed via a levy which was set up to support the South African Advertising Research Foundation (SAARF) – whose mandate is to provide credible and unbiased research to the industry – but which was then used as a vehicle to assist the ASA when it was clear it could no longer support itself.
Consumerism takes hold
But recently the thorny issue of the sustainability of both bodies has come under the microscope as advertising levels decrease and media owner margins come under pressure. Going hand-in-hand with this is the reality that a rising number of consumer and competitor complaints have increased the ASA’s workload and hence running costs.
The old guard within the advertising and marketing fraternity believes that if the ASA was not around to protect consumers from errant advertisers, then the government would be only too ready to step in and take over this function. But would it? I have seen no political posturing in this quarter, no claims of a shut down and draconian laws to prevent one of the pillars of democracy from toppling.
Such behaviour would smack of the old South Africa where everything was protected and controlled in one way or another, and created an environment that justifiably gave rise to associations such as the ASA.
Enter the Consumer Council which, under the present government, would step in and take over the function of adjudicating complaints of all kinds from the public, thus diminishing the need for an ASA
Marketers should pay up
So what is left for the ASA once consumer complaints are re-directed to the council? To handle squabbles between marketers at reduced fees (when compared with the average court of law)?
To my thinking any marketer worth their salt would, when taking a cheeky advertising gap knowing that they will be challenged by competitors, build in the cost of consulting with attorneys and attending court proceedings.
It’s simply unreasonable to expect media owners to contribute to the running costs of the ASA at a time when they are losing income, and when it is their advertising campaigns that are being withdrawn at the behest of the ASA … or when their funds are being used as a way to settle squabbles between business rivals. (The recent high-profile spats between Vodacom, MTN and Cell C being just such an example).
Creating risky advertising carries a cost and this should be shouldered by the marketer, not the piggy-in-the-middle media owner.
This story first appeared in Strategic Marketing magazine, the IMM Group’s publication.
Sandra Gordon is the CEO of the Iconic Group of companies, which includes several print and online publications covering the marketing and media industries, including TheMediaOnline and The Media magazine. She has wide experience in media, marketing, advertising and public relations, and has served on numerous industry bodies.