Advertising chief seeks to ‘get message out’ on new standards

Alcohol ads and paid social media ‘influencers’ among ASAI’s targets for monitoring

Orla Twomey, chief executive of the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland: “We’re not here to resolve spats between companies.”

Orla Twomey, chief executive of the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland: “We’re not here to resolve spats between companies.”


She is used to dealing with complaints, but the next mission for Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland (ASAI) chief executive Orla Twomey is to stop them arising in the first place.

The ASAI plans to “get the message out” on its newly revised code of standards to third-level marketing and advertising students.

“We want to make sure that the people who are coming into the industry, the people who are going to be the brand managers or the account directors or the creatives, understand that the code is there, and what it’s for,” says Twomey.

The code is “not about blocking creativity”, but about helping the industry “be creative in a way that helps protect their clients’ brand reputation”.

New rules for gambling and e-cigarette advertisements and tighter restrictions on the claims that can be made by food companies and health practitioners came into force in March.

Gambling is “not actually a huge source of complaints for us at the moment”, says Twomey, and most of the complaints that do come in are from customers aggrieved that they didn’t get the free bet they thought they had been promised.

The number of complaints to land on the self-regulatory body’s desk this year is on track to be similar to 2015’s tally of 1,221 complaints (relating to 924 advertisements), of which 72 were found to be in breach of the code.

The number of “copy advice requests”, however, has tripled this year to 135. Industry people want the “safety net” of the ASAI’s non-binding opinion before they sign off on an ad.

Alcohol ads are regularly the subject of proactive monitoring “because obviously that is an area of societal concern”, while another of the organisation’s targets for intervention this year has been bloggers and “influencers” who review products because they have been paid by a brand to do so.

“That’s absolutely fine, but if it’s a marketing communication, if there’s control from the brand over the type of thing that has to be said, and if there’s remuneration, then it must be flagged as advertising,” says Twomey.

Need for transparency

The ASAI’s approaches were met with a “very positive” reaction. “Bloggers really do understand the need for transparency, and that’s very encouraging, because they wouldn’t have come across this type of regulation before.”

Ads are more often found to be misleading than offensive, with the telecoms sector, known for its small print, taking the dubious prize for generating the most complaints in recent years.

“Part of it is the sheer volume of marketing communications that they do, and that it is such a competitive area,” says Twomey. “But we do know that they watch our adjudications very carefully – even the adjudications against their competitors.”

Indeed, telecoms companies are also in the regular habit of taking complaints against their rivals. “We’re not here to resolve spats between companies, but we will investigate a complaint from a competitor where we feel it is something that would be of concern to consumers,” she says.

Under the new code, if the 14-strong ASAI complaints committee (the majority of them from outside the industry) needs expert advice to adjudicate on an intra-industry complaint, they will ask the complainant to fund it.

There are plenty of grey areas for the committee to navigate, not least on the subject of whether an advertisement is merely offensive to some or causes “grave or widespread offence”. For complaints to be upheld, it must be the latter.

“Grave offence has to be really quite serious. We very rarely find that something has caused grave offence. For widespread offence, we look at how many complaints we have received. But we don’t have a magic number.”

Twomey took up the role of chief executive earlier this year, but she has worked for the industry-funded ASAI since 1989, and has seen many changes since then.

‘Social standards’

Complaints are assessed in light of “prevailing societal standards”, which do, of course, change over time. Now the stuff of advertising case studies, Benetton’s controversial-by-design billboard ads, such as the 1991 image of a bloodied newborn, would likely attract similar censure today, Twomey believes.

A scan through some old files has reminded her of a local controversy, also from 1991, in which a bus shelter ad for Budget Travel focused on the bum of a bikini-clad woman and the line “get your seat to the sun”. About 50 complaints were made to the ASAI.

Twomey thinks the ad would be unlikely to generate the same level of kerfuffle today, “because it would be seen as, well, it’s a sun holiday, so she’s in a bikini”. But if a bikini-sporting woman was used to decorate bonnet of a car for no good reason whatsoever, “which used to happen”, it wouldn’t be deemed compliant with the code.

The ASAI hasn’t imposed any fines since its very early days, and the main sanctions now are the published adjudications and the cost of having to pull or adapt an ad that has been the subject of an upheld complaint.

“No brand wants to be on the receiving end of an upheld adjudication,” says Twomey.

But aren’t there some – the Paddy Powers of this world, for instance – who are happy to court controversy, or are at least fine with a few calculated risks?

“There are some brands for which it is said no publicity is bad publicity,” Twomey says. But “ultimately”, she adds, they are rarely comfortable with causing widespread offence. “That is not something most brands would want in the long term.”