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Right message, right medium: ASA CEO Hilary Souter on setting standards and helping ads follow them

In the wake of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) launching a new Advertising Standards Code and its AdHelp service, we sit down with chief executive Hilary Souter to talk about understanding the codes, the importance of choosing the right medium and her advice for advertisers and agencies.

By Erin McKenzie | August 7, 2018 | features

Last year the ASA received 603 formal complaints about ads in New Zealand, with 37 percent resulting in ads being removed or changed. A further 18 percent were not upheld, two percent had no jurisdiction and 43 percent had no grounds to proceed.

In contrast, the ASA responded to 347 enquiries from media companies, advertisers and agencies about advertisements prior to publication or broadcast.

Now, with a revamp of its standards and a new Advertising Standards Code being released last month, as well as the new AdHelp service there will hopefully be more enquiries and fewer complaints.

“What we found looking at what we do over the last few years is the ASA is pretty strongly identified with the complaints process but that’s a by-product of what we do," says chief executive Hilary Souter.

“In fact our role is about setting standards.”

The new code is a consolidation of six former codes that included similar rules and guidelines. The retired codes include: Advertising Code of Ethics; Codes for Advertising Food; Code for Advertising Vehicles; Code for Environmental Claims; Code for People in Advertising; and the Code for Comparative Advertising. The change means there is now one primary point of reference for advertising standards.

It takes the number of advertising codes from 11 to six: The Advertising Standards Code and the five sector codes where advertisers are expected to take particular care – Alcohol, Children and Young People, Finance, Gambling and Therapeutic and Health advertising.

And for those seeking information on the new code, or in need of any of the ASA's knowledge or expertise, there's now the user-pays AdHelp Information Service.

Anyone in the advertising industry can request information about ASA code interpretation, precedent decisions and the legal framework that applies to advertising.

Souter says it's hoping it will be able to help people understand compliance at the start of the process, as opposed to learning a lesson through the complaints process after the ad has already been displayed or published.

“What I’ve observed is people are often very careful and very knowledgeable about their particular products and what they are allowed to say in relation to their particular products.

“But what they sometimes forget is making that careful claim, the setting they put that claim in, is also subject to some rules.”

Souter uses the example of creating an ad with a child riding their bike. While the behaviour may seem safe to those producing the ad, as it was filmed in a controlled environment with adult supervision, all the audience sees is an ad featuring a child riding their bike around a blind corner on the wrong side of the road.

But do the audience pick up on those details?

“Oh yeah,” says Souter.

“Once the campaign has launched, if people have a concern about it, it’s pretty quick that we do hear about it – usually the next day.”

And with social media now in the mix, she says it’s often even faster because people see others talking about a campaign and react accordingly.

However, that’s not to say New Zealand advertisers and agencies are doing a bad job.

Souter says it’s lucky to have the level of engagement it has from the industry and for the $2.5 billion of advertising revenue being generated in a year ($2.561 billion in 2017 and $2.572 billion in 2016) very little ads are problematic.

And for those wanting to ensure their ads don’t become programmatic, she suggests getting someone who is outside of the process to look at the ad and see whether or not there are things that might ring alarm bells.

“When you know the narrative, you don’t see that it might resonate with others who don’t have any context other than watching the 30-second ad.”

Following these standards might have helped Frucor Suntory New Zealand, which released the most complained about ad of 2017 with 18 complaints expressing concern for safety.

Created by Many Minds, the ads featured a nail gun being used as a weapon on a construction site by a man standing in wet concrete.

Complainants were worried the act of using the nail gun as a weapon could be easily emulated and the Frucor Suntory responded by removing the scene showing the gun.

While this settles some complaints, there were also complaints about the man coming into contact with wet concrete as it caustic. Those complaints were upheld.

It was found the advertisement depicted a dangerous practice with the potential to encourage a disregard for safety, in breach of Principle One of the Code for Advertising Food and Rule 12 of the Code of Ethics.

Following behind with seven complaints, was Village Roadshow Ltd for its Annabelle 2 movie trailer. Complainants were concerned the dark scenes, scary dolls and images of children being thrown across the room and dragged away were not suitable for the screening times. The trailer’s rating was changed to AO and the complaints were settled.

Reckitt Benkiser also received seven complaints for its V.I.Poo ad. It features a Hollywood-style star talking about the spray’s function of masking the smell of “devil’s doughnuts” and complainants found it to be inappropriate, offensive and disgusting. However, with the advertisers discussing the toilet odour subject with humour, there were no grounds for the complaint to proceed.

While not making a feature in the most complained about ads, over half the complaints received in 2017 related to misleading claims advertisements. Just under 20 percent were about taste and decency issues.

Looking across the different mediums, it was TV that last year saw the most complaint action, with 37 percent of the complaints, followed by advertiser websites’ 27 percent. Next came digital – including social media ­– with 13 percent, out-of-home with 10 percent, radio’s seven percent and print’s six percent.

It’s these different mediums Souter raises when asked if there’s anything she wants to see advertisers and agencies think about.

“A really good thing to do is be really confident about their placement so they clearly understand their target audience and that target audience matches the placement of the ad – particularly if the ad is pushing boundaries.”

That’s not to say advertisers and agencies aren’t already doing that, but she points out getting the placement right goes a long way considering some of the complaints the ASA sees are from people the message is not directed to.

And no media is left untouched by the ASA’s codes.

“An ad needs to be truthful whether it’s an Instagram post, an ad in The Dominion Post, on NZherald.co.nz or on channel One during the news break,” says Souter.

To explain the importance of medium selection, she gives the example of a billboard with an unlimited audience compared to a company’s Facebook page. Content that causes offence on the former may not on the latter – it depends on the context.

One of the challenges Souter says has risen in the social media environment is that the once reasonably small number of media companies through which all advertising was done has now turned into potentially 4.5 million publishers.

“In theory, anyone could be an advertiser.”

People – known as influencers – are being paid to be spokespeople or promote products through their profiles, however, Souter warns they have not come through a process in which they gain an awareness, or understanding of the risks involved in being a publisher.

She believes it’s the responsibility of the agencies working with the influencers to help them upskill on the legal and code compliance, in order to understand their responsibilities and protect their reputations.

“They are effectively being paid in a manner similar to the New Zealand Herald in terms of a vehicle to communicate a message or an advertisement to an audience. The fair trading act says publishers are as liable as advertisers for the content of advertising so you want to be informed about what your responsibilities are and your rights and responsibilities.”

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