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Simple solution to the ASA funding crisis

South Africa's marketing and media industries have identified two crises that will test their mettle this year. Both of them involve adequate funding of two important industry bodies - the SA Advertising Research Foundation (SAARF) and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) of SA.
Simple solution to the ASA funding crisisOf the two, the easiest to solve must surely be ASA funding. Quite simply, all it needs to do is to stop trying to be all things to all men, stop trying to play god and, above all, stop being paranoid about having to go beyond the extra mile to prevent a situation where Government takes over the role of advertising regulator.

Right now, the ASA does an excellent job as an effective watchdog in terms of misleading advertising, and an equally good job in terms of mediating disputes between brands on everything from copyright infringements to intellectual property theft.

Stick to misleading ads


While the latter might be complex and costly, at least both sides contribute to legal costs and there is no reason why this form of mediation should cost the ASA anything at all.

In terms of misleading advertising, if the complainants are private citizens, it costs them nothing but at least the process from the ASA's point of view should not be complicated or overly expensive because misleading advertising can be judged in terms of the black-and-white ASA rules.

But, where the ASA is wasting a lot of time, money and human resources is when it attempts to adjudicate on issues of taste. To try and fairly regulate so-called offensive advertising means having to play god simply because being offended is an extremely personal emotion. What I might find offensive, thousands of others might find utterly harmless.

Undemocratic


To make matters worse, the ASA will take seriously one single complaint from a lone voice among SA's 50 million population. Admittedly, it does now tend to throw out the sillier complaints but it still gets involved in far too many disputes on the question of so-called offensive ads.

This not only costs the company concerned a lot of money but, if the complaint is not upheld, the complainant - if he or she is a private citizen - is just patted on the head and is in no way liable for any costs.

All of which has turned this into some sort of national sport for consumers who have nothing better to do than complain about advertising. Think back to that appalling situation about a decade ago, when in one year 75% of all complaints to the ASA about cellphone advertising came from one individual who was clearly on a crusade. And that has been only one of hundreds of time- and money-wasting issues in which the ASA has involved itself over the years.

Two aspects are worrying. The first is that it is hardly fair that one lone dissenting voice can be assumed to be the opinion of the majority of South Africans. And, secondly, the way that the ASA works is very much on the basis of guilty until proved innocent.

Shoot first, questions afterwards


It is common practice that advertisers, against whom a complaint has been lodged, are obliged to withdraw their advertising until such time as a ruling has been made.

Now, one of the reasons why the ASA is perceived to be so much more heavy-handed and draconian than say, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCCSA), is because it continually warns all its stakeholders that, if it is not seen to be doing its job properly, the government will take over the role of advertising regulator.

Which is absolute nonsense and nothing but cheap scare tactics. For a start, having spoken to a lot of people in Government over the years, the last thing they want to do is get involved in advertising disputes.

But, ironically enough, if Government wanted to get involved in advertising regulation, it could quite easily do so under sections the Trade Practices Act promulgated way back in 1949.

Govt is already involved


So, for the past 63 years, Government has been an advertising regulator and anyone who wants to lay a charge against an advertiser can legally do so without having to go through the ASA. They do not do this because the process required is far more complicated and time-consuming than going through the industry regulator.

There is no question in my mind that, instead of the marketing and media industries having to look for additional funding for the ASA, what the ASA should be doing is taking a long, hard look at what it is doing and cut its cloth a lot more pragmatically.

An overhaul of the ASA is long overdue and it needs to be trimmed down from the draconian monster it is and stop the costly process of trying to play god by so arrogantly deciding what is and what is not bad taste. The way the ASA is currently constructed smacks of nannyism and encouraging intolerance.

It is also acting completely contrary to the spirit of the SA Constitution by applying the "guilty until proved innocent" rule and to allow one or even a handful of citizens, whose motives are often completely unknown, to speak on behalf of 50 million.

Mugabe of Marketing


The ASA, in my opinion, does not need more money; it simply needs more sense and less arrogance because right now, in my opinion, it is fast becoming the Mugabe of Marketing, with idiotic rules, iron fists and no money.

About Chris Moerdyk: @chrismoerdyk

Apart from being a corporate marketing analyst, advisor and media commentator, Chris Moerdyk is a former chairman of Bizcommunity. He was head of strategic planning and public affairs for BMW South Africa and spent 16 years in the creative and client service departments of ad agencies, ending up as resident director of Lindsay Smithers-FCB in KwaZulu-Natal. Email Chris on moc.liamg@ckydreom and follow him on Twitter at @chrismoerdyk.

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