The Advertising Standards Agency should not engage in social engineering

I’d normally argue that it is better for industries to self-regulate rather than have the state regulate them. Having just read the latest report of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), I’d want to qualify that a bit.

The report, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: A report on gender stereotypes in advertising, calls for “a tougher line […] on ads that feature stereotypical gender roles and characteristics”. New rules are to be drawn up, taking effect next year. This takes the ASA beyond its existing remit and deep into the field of social engineering. It does so on the basis of weak evidence, it downplays the restrictions on freedom of speech which this policy entails, and it introduces a new element of costly uncertainty for agencies.

Let’s put this in context. The ASA was set up in 1961 as an industry-financed body in response to concerns about the ‘hidden persuaders’ (as a famous book of the period dubbed them) of the advertising industry, allegedly manipulating people to buy products which they didn’t need and which sometimes failed to live up to the claims made for them.

The ASA works together with the Committee of Advertising Practice (which draws up codes of practice on non-broadcasting advertising and direct marketing) and the Broadcasting Committee of Advertising Practice (which, under powers devolved from Ofcom, maintains the UK Code of Broadcasting Advertising). It investigates complaints about advertising that is held to breach the requirement of being ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’. If a complaint is upheld, the ASA can require it to be amended or withdrawn. It can force future campaigns to be pre-vetted. If there are persistent repeat offenders, the ASA can refer them to the Competition and Markets Authority, which can in some cases prosecute.

The ASA and its satellite bodies have historically based their approach on the need for advertising to be ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’. This is fairly unexceptionable, although truth has been a slippery concept since Pontius Pilate.

It could be argued that some dishonest advertising amounts to fraud, and other more egregious types of misleading advertisement could be prosecuted under consumer protection legislation without the need for a self-regulator. Some areas where the ASA has intervened are questionable – for instance restricting advertising featuring young women who are fashionably, though conceivably unhealthily, thin. Across the Atlantic, the US Constitution’s First Amendment would prevent such interventions. Nevertheless, there is currently no strong opposition to the ASA’s remit.

The new proposal, however, takes us down a more dangerous path. The key justification offered is that “gender stereotypes have the potential to harm by inviting assumptions about adults and children that might negatively restrict how they see themselves and how others see them”. It is asserted that this can be a factor leading to unequal ‘gender outcomes’, which is taken to be an unequivocally Bad Thing.

The report’s author claims that gender stereotypes can lead to “mental, physical or social harm” or can be offensive to large numbers of people. Some of the possible examples of potential harm are, however, tenuous in the extreme: they include high male suicide rates because men are upset by being unable to live up to male stereotypes, and a loss to the economy of £150 billion because stereotypes help maintain the gender pay gap and slow economic growth.

As for potential offence, the report thinks this is particularly important. Those who argue for freedom of speech are summarily dismissed: “free speech and liberty to offend does not correspond with a right to cause harm”. As for the view that the use of stereotypes is often meant to be ironic and humorous – for instance the depiction of men as useless at domestic tasks –  the report argues that ‘research’ suggests that exposure to sexist humour “is linked to increased prejudice and sexist views”.

Frequent references are in fact made to ‘research’ in the document. This turns out more often than not to be qualitative research, usually organised from a critical perspective drawing on media theory. There is little that would pass muster amongst even sympathetic economists. Often this research is produced or pushed by pressure groups such as Stonewall and the Fawcett Society which have agendas of their own.

The report as a whole raises some interesting questions and should not be dismissed outright. But what concerns me is that a body like the ASA has the power, without Parliamentary scrutiny, to impose restrictions on what can or cannot be published. It adopts a cavalier approach to creativity and freedom of expression. It is likely to impose substantial costs on the advertising industry which will have to try to anticipate what complaints may be made under new rules – another own goal as we once more penalise a successful British industry.

Moreover, once this principle is embedded, we can expect further incursions into interest group politics. I don’t think we should be going down this route at all, but if we are to have this sort of intervention it should be debated in Parliament, not decided by a cabal of the politically correct.


4 thoughts on “The Advertising Standards Agency should not engage in social engineering”

  1. Posted 25/07/2017 at 20:23 | Permalink

    Good points. Advertising is something that is done well in the Union Kingdom of Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and there is a lot of stereotype challenging humour already in said advertising which is designed to sell you stuff and services. The ASA should not be trying to change something that works well.

  2. Posted 30/07/2017 at 09:04 | Permalink

    It also says something about the well-off people who control these things when they think that something such as cleaning or cooking is a demeaning activity. It is actually a very important activity, not least if one is concerned about (for example) environmental sustainability. It also enhances other people’s lives. However, I do not agree with the implication that parliamentary scrutiny would make this action more justifiable – as long as advertisers can opt out, of course.

  3. Posted 01/08/2017 at 07:56 | Permalink

    The word “Authority” in the ASA’s name suggests legal powers, and this article speaks of powers. But aside from broadcasting, do they actually have any power? If a newspaper or the owner of a billboard said they were going to ignore the ASA, could the ASA go to court over the matter? So far as I can see, they could not. It therefore strikes me that use of the word “Authority” in the name may be misleading and therefore inappropriate by the ASA’s own rules.

  4. Posted 07/08/2017 at 17:07 | Permalink

    Common Purpose at work. ‘Manage beyond authority’.

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