Daily Mail breaks the rules again - what's the point of the ASA?
And so once more, The Daily Mail has been found guilty of breaking advertising rules and telling consumers a porkie or two. Specifically, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has found the newspaper in breach of no less than six regulations and declared the promotion to be misleading and untruthful. Boom.
If you want to read the ASA's report for yourself, you'll find it here. Essentially the paper offered cheap family holidays, and enticed readers to apply with big shiny headlines, hiding away the pertinent detail in very small print, as well as failing to mention that availability of the holidays was heavily restricted at peak times. There were other misdemeanours but you get the idea; the ASA upheld three separate complaints.
So given the serious nature of the matter, in that consumers were thoroughly misled by the promotion, what decisive action has the ASA taken against the paper?
"The promotion must not appear again in its current form."
Here's the thing. The promotion won't appear in its current form again - not by virtue of the Daily Mail having a sudden fit of morals and making good on its misleading behaviour, but by virtue of the linear passage of time. The promotion is done, finished with - it won't happen in its current form again, not because of the ASA's adjudication, but because a time machine would be required for the same advert with the same particulars to run once more.
The truth is the same companies continue to break the advertising rules, over and over, and as soon as complaints are upheld, they simply tweak the message and do it all over again. This is the fifth time that The Mail and The Mail on Sunday have had complaints upheld this year alone. BT, another company in the headlines today for bending the rules concerning broadband speeds, has been found in breach of the ASA regulations no less than a dozen times in just over two years.
While the ASA likes to think that upheld complaints serves as an example to other advertisers, it's fair to suggest their actions can never deter those companies with large marketing budgets. They can sustain a misleading advertising message that far outweighs a single day of bad press. Advertising works through repetition of the message, through frequency - so it's the advertiser that'll always win a confrontation with the ASA. Every time.
All the ASA can do is request that other bodies consider punishing offenders. For example:
"For misleading or unfair advertising, if an advertiser refuses to comply with the ASA, then the ASA Chief Executive is able to refer the advertiser to the Office of Fair Trading for legal proceedings.
"Such referrals are rarely necessary, as most advertisers prefer to resolve the matter directly with us."
And how are such matters resolved with the ASA? By the advertiser promising not to run the same advert again. Oh. Only Ryanair seems to have been sent to the OFT for bad behaviour, while plenty of others continue misleading consumers with impunity.
"Our aim at the ASA is to ensure that consumers do not just enjoy the ads they see, but they can trust them too."
Except you can't trust them, can you? Ultimately it seems that any advertiser can say what they want, as often as they want, because advertising can deliver a misleading message unchallenged for weeks, and the ASA can only ever limply tackle it with a day of bad press.