Horse's Mouth: Hilary Souter

  • Horse's Mouth
  • August 18, 2014
  • StopPress Team
Horse's Mouth: Hilary Souter

Being the one to tell people they’ve crossed the line is an unenviable responsibility at the best of times. But, despite having forged a career out of doing just that, Hilary Souter, the chief executive of the Advertising Standards Authority, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, is still smiling. So how does she keep it all together at the ASA?

On being an authoritative voice:

“Sometimes it’s interesting talking to people, particularly on the phone, when I call and say who I am, there’s a silence before they want to speak to me. But look, honestly, most of the time we have really broad industry support for what the ASA does and people accept that it’s part and parcel of being responsible advertisers. People don’t really give me a hard time. Every now and again, we get into some robust discussions with both complainants and advertisers, but I have no problem with that."


On history: 

“The ASA started in 1973, so I just have to say it’s before my time. I’ve not been here that long. But the inaugural members were the four A’s, the CAANZ predecessor, the Newspaper Publishers’ Association and the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation. In the first minutes they recorded their purpose or objectives to seek and maintain at all times and in all media proper and acceptable standards of advertising, to ensure that advertising is not misleading, either by statement or implication, and also to encourage media to voluntarily cooperate in any self regulation that may be necessary from time to time.”    

On evolution:

“I think it’s interesting that when I was looking at the minutes in the first meeting, the first codes they discussed were a code of practice for slimming advertising and one for baldness advertising. Look, the core business is exactly the same: we have a set of codes and we have a complaints process. I think what’s changed over those years is that the process is a lot faster than it used to be—as is the ad industry for that matter—and there was a really significant development in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when we set up a separate complaints board and a separate appeal board. And also in the early '90s we incorporated the Advertising Standards Authority, so we had the name change and set up the process we have today. More recently we are working really hard with improving engagement within the industry and with other external stakeholders, and enhancing the complaints process. We’ve also just recently moved to fortnightly complaints board meetings.“

On changing media channels:

“The types of ads and where they appear has changed, significantly. You can see that just by virtue of the ASA membership. Initially, we had broadcast media and newspapers. We’ve now got 11 media members covering every kind of media channel you can think of.  One of the strengths of our system is that we’re flexible. It’s about the advertisement; it’s not about where it is. Where it is might be a factor in determining whether it’s a problem or not, but [our approach] is platform neutral. It doesn’t matter where it appears; it only matters whether it’s an advertisement or not. If it’s an ad, we’ll look at it.”

On self-regulation:

“What’s important to understand is that we’re not a lone bastion for advertising standards. In fact, there are around 50 laws in New Zealand on advertising. Most advertisers that I know have their own standards within their companies. Some people think you click your fingers one day and you get an ad the next … sure there are some quick campaign turnarounds … but most of the campaigns in the market have been in development for quite some time. And it’s put together on the basis of some pretty strong guidance, both legal and in relation to advertising standards and our codes of practice. So the ASA codes provide another level of detail about what the industry has agreed to do and not do in relation to certain products or categories, because there is sometimes a need for a higher standard of social responsibility.” 

On snake oil:

“We get quite a few complaints in the therapeutic area, because it’s a really big category. It’s over-the-counter stuff, it’s herbal stuff, it’s pharmacy stuff, it’s prescription stuff … it’s an enormously large range of products. I think the other challenge in therapeutics is that it’s quite a complex area and lots of people, particularly smaller advertisers, are not aware of the restrictions. And they often feel that if they’ve used something and it’s worked that they want to tell other people about it. And in the therapeutic area there are some strict laws around what you can and can’t say, as well as our codes. It’s an area where you need to word things very carefully. And my recommendation to people working in that area is: under-promise, and over-deliver.” 

On social mores:

“The complaints board is the body that makes the decision as to whether or not the line has been crossed. In the last ten years there has been an increased ability to target your audience and when you carefully target your audience you tend to minimise the risk of complaint, because the people you’re talking to aren’t offended by the way you approach that message. So if you’ve got an edgy brand or some language you want to use that isn’t acceptable in the mainstream, and you advertise in a way that only reaches your customer base, then you really reduce the risk of people having a problem with it. The Broadcast Standards Authority has some research that suggests people are probably less concerned about some milder expletives in some mediums than they were 20 years ago. So we probably get fewer complaints around that sort of thing. This doesn’t apply to all swear words, but there are a number at the lower end of the offensiveness range that probably press fewer buttons than they used to. We are also getting fewer complaints about the use of some religious imagery as New Zealand has become more secular. I’m not saying that it’s not offensive to some people, but our threshold is serious or widespread offence. And the other area that has probably gone the other direction is issues around safety. People are concerned often about the risk of copycat behaviour. If you show something in an ad that people might replicate, even when presented in a hyperbolic sense, it could be seen as an endorsement of the behaviour. Examples of that might be the Kiwibank ad where the child jumps off the rock unsupervised or the Vodafone ad where someone is about to put a knife in the toaster to unjam it. There’s a level of risk around whether that behaviour could be replicated and the board takes a particularly conservative view around ads that might appeal to children.” 

On the burden of proof:

“Under the ASA process, the onus is on the advertisers to prove that they’re right; the complainant doesn’t have to prove [the advertisers] are wrong. Historically, under the Fair Trading Act, if the Commerce Commission prosecuted an advertiser for a misleading representation, it had to prove that the claim is misleading or untrue. The Consumer Law Reform, which came in last year, made changes to the Fair Trading Act, and from 18 June unsubstantiated representations will be prohibited. What this means is that advertisers must hold substantiation of the claim before they make it. If you want to say you’re the cheapest … you need to be able to prove it. Our code has always required that, but now the law is also going to require it.”     

On naming and shaming:

“The driving force behind our process is the removal of the offending advertisement. If the advertisement is a problem, you need to take it down or take it away. It’s not just that. We also release all the decisions to the media, so there’s often reporting of those complaints. And that creates its own interest around companies that have misled consumers. Also, if you search company names, often our decisions come up. So consumers are also alerted in that way in terms of historical company behaviour.” 

On multi-industry involvement:

“One of the strengths of our process is that we have advertisers, advertising agencies and the media all engaged with it. So people are looking at the material at several different levels for a variety of reasons. All of that helps in terms of the strength of the system.” 

On upcoming legal changes:

“I’m not a lawyer, so it’s not my particular area of expertise …  but the Consumer Law Reform area would be one. There are existing laws that will get a bit more focus this year, because of things that are happening around them. One of these laws would be the Major Events Management Act. Because the Commonwealth Games are on, there are a number of restrictions within the Major Events Management Act that apply to Commonwealth Games’ logos and wording and so on. So advertisers have to be alert to that. And there’s also the election … and there are a range of restrictions around advertising in the Electoral Act.”    

On the future: 

“I think it’s a fantastic time. There’s lots of opportunity. We’ve done some pretty detailed strategic work at the ASA last year and on-going into this year. We’re looking at enhancing the systems and processes we use to make the complaints process more efficient, and to support a faster turnaround, given that the advertising world is moving quicker and quicker and the campaign durations are shorter and shorter. We’re lucky to have the flexibility that we do under self-regulation to respond pretty quickly to changes in the advertising world. An example of that would be when social media became more of a force in the industry, we were able to issue some guidance around that and we started accepting complaints for ads on social media platforms. We didn’t have to do anything significant to be able to do that. We simply spoke to people in the industry, got some support from the members and then did it. The level of flexibility you have in self-regulation is hugely helpful in a fast-moving world. And we’re just keen to deliver best practice self-regulation of advertising.”

On learning from other countries:

“We’re involved internationally with the International Council of the European Advertising Standards Alliance, so we talk a lot to collegues overseas to find out about their experiences and how they’re working to improve things. We are also working with some of the APEC countries to develop advertising regulation in the Asia Pacific. All those things are really important to us. We aslo take a lot of time to talk to people in New Zealand about what we do and how we do it in order to ensure that we maintain the level of support that we have in the industry.”   

On pushing boundaries:

“A lot of advertisers have their own standards or lines that they draw. It’s good to be able to alert them to the lines that the ASA has drawn. But advertising is a creative industry and that’s a good thing. And we have no problems with people pushing boundaries … Some of the most creative ads in New Zealand history have been ads that push boundaries.”

  • This story was originally published in the May/June issue of NZ Marketing.

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