Legal, decent, thruthful and honest? Oh, come off it!

Major airlines and detergent brands runs rings round the ASA while the small guys get hauled up on pedantic points of detail, writes Craig Sams.

Which ads do you think would upset the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)?  Their brief is to crack down on advertising that is not ‘legal, decent, truthful and honest.’  They do it by putting pressure on the media not to accept offending ads.

1 .“New Improved Organic Wildcat shower gel – the cleaner you are, the dirtier you get.”

2.  Fly Murphyair to Nice for £2

3. “Avoid unhealthy Transfats – Eat Whole Earth non-hydrogenated margarine”

4. “Organic means fewer drugs or antibiotics, it also means better conditions for animals so they get to thrive and grow more naturally.

It’s 3 and 4, of course

From 1997 until the ASA finally took action last year you could call a completely non-organic shower product ‘organic’ or ‘Organics.‘  Despite frequent complaints they refused to act. That the ads defied any reasonable definition of organic was neither here nor there.   The EU lawmakers had not yet roped in bodycare or textiles to their legal definition of ‘organic.’ So shower products and shampoos misleadingly benefited from being described as ‘organic’ for a decade due to a fine legalistic point.

But what if an ad indecently suggests, in adverts seen at bus stops by 7 year-olds, that gorgeous girls will be queueing up to get down and dirty with you if you smear some concoction of synthetic perfumes and detergents all over it? That’s OK as it is ‘decent’ and ‘truthful’, as far as the ASA is concerned. I look at ads like that and feel sorry for the losers who believe it, but we live in a world where a lot of guys are so desperate for some nookie that they’ll believe anything. But I also feel sorry for the parents who have to explain this ad to their kids.

You can advertise the cost of a flight without any of the add-ons that most people will end up paying (online check-in fees, credit card fees, airport charges etc). Airlines complain to the ASA about each other and the ASA steps in but they have been doing it for 10 years and the ASA can’t really stop them.  They have huge advertising budgets so the media run the ads and then the ads are out of date anyway and a new, more imaginatively untruthful ad appears. It’s makes a mockery of the ASA.

But the ASA can flex its muscles when it faces up to the little guys.

When Whole Earth advertised Superspread in 1993 it had a rather longwinded educational advertisement explaining the latest research on hydrogenated fats and urging people to choose a non-hydrogenated alternative. The folks who make Flora complained to the ASA – (their product was 21% hydrogenated fat in those days).  We gave all the information to the ASA but they still refused to let us advertise. We appealed. They said it wasn’t about truthfulness, they didn’t like us appealing to fear. Flora had been appealing to fear for a decade, with pictures of pretty housewives resolving to keep their hubby healthy and heart attack-free by cutting out butter and making his sandwiches with hydrogenated margarine. That’s when I realised the ASA had integrity issues. Recently I asked to see the records of our case and they said they hadn’t kept records from before 1994!

The Organic Trade Board invested in advertising that stated ‘Organic means fewer drugs or antibiotics, it also means better conditions for animals so they get to thrive and grow more naturally.’ The ASA stopped this (see p ??) because somewhere there might be a lucky cow or chicken that enjoys conditions as good as on an organic farm.  Replace ‘also’ with ‘generally’ and you have an ad with the same powerful message. But what a pedantic and trivial distinction. What a pain!

I have steered clear of complementary medicine in this rant, but just think about this.  Every year 720,000 Americans are killed by adverse reactions to prescription drugs. This means ‘death by doctor’ beats heart disease and cancer as the leading cause of death.  The NHS doesn’t publish similar statistics, but works hand in hand with the same drug companies. Perhaps it’s time for the ASA to take a look at the advertising of drugs.

By Craig Sams

Organic food pioneer and polemicist
Craig Sams is Britain’s best known natural food pioneer. He is the founder of Green & Blacks, a former Soil Association chairman and the author of The Little Food Book.