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Ad regulator attempts to decontaminate toxic MMR/autism controversy

August 8, 2012

You have to feel a little sorry for Guy Parker and his team at the Advertising Standards Authority. Every now and then an issue comes along with a screaming public health warning blazoned all over it – “Highly Toxic, On No Account Handle.” Yet they manfully don the protective gear and attempt to decontaminate it for the public good just the same. Knowing, all the while, that there are no heroes in these situations, only casualties.

MMR – the triple measles, mumps and Rubella (German measles) vaccination – is just such an issue. Babyjabs is an organisation, backed by the medical prestige of one Dr Richard Halvorsen, that firmly believes some of the unpleasant side-effects of the triple-jab – which include the possibility of autism – can be mitigated by the simple expedient of administering all three vaccinations individually. They don’t say single vaccinations have no side effects – they do say the side effects are less likely to occur. For instance: “It is very likely that the MMR causes autism and bowel disease in some children. It is probable that the single measles vaccine can also do this, but, if so, much more rarely than the MMR.”

Many parents persist in agreeing with these conclusions, albeit on a common-sense, non-scientific level. Much to the consternation of the UK medical establishment and the National Health Service, which for years have been attempting to stamp out a heresy that, by implication, calls into question the authority of eminent doctors, not to mention the sacrosanct commercial right of Big Pharma (in this case the saintly GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi Pasteur MSD) to flog billions of pounds-worth of the triple vaccine to the NHS.

The ASA has had to step in and slap down Babyjabs after a single anonymous complainant (possibly a Witchfinder General at the General Medical Council, but we cannot be certain) called into question the veracity of website claims about MMR’s pernicious effects.

MMR has been fraught with controversy since Dr Andrew Wakefield’s, er, seminal research into the subject surfaced in 1998. Wakefield purported to have found a definite link between the triple vaccine and the growing incidence of autism. So influential was the backwash from his research that, at one time, uptake of the MMR jab was 60% down in some parts of the country. But it was later demonstrated that Wakefield had “fixed” the results of his research and that he had, in any case, an underlying agenda at odds with dispassionate scientific inquiry. He was struck off the medical register and now quietly plies his trade in other realms.

Wakefield is not the only dangerous heretic, however. Robert F Kennedy Jnr, son of the late assassinated presidential candidate no less, has also come back into the fray with a refreshed set of allegations suggesting that a vaccine preservative containing mercury (thimerosal by name), plus the unseasonable number of vaccines pumped into kids before they are two, may have something to do with the autism syndrome. His argument depends, to some extent, upon the perceived relative absence of autism within the Pennsylvania Amish community – which is proverbially hostile to the whole idea of vaccination programmes.

It remains to be seen whether Wakefield will be viewed by future generations as one of the greatest medical fraudsters of all time, or as some kind of Christopher Columbus figure – a historic pioneer who found the wrong continent with the aid of a faulty compass.

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ASA adjudication on Fathers4Justice ad marks Pyrrhic victory for Mumsnet

July 4, 2012

I’m not surprised the Advertising Standards Authority has banned this cheery Fathers4Justice national press ad.

Headlined “Say it with hate this Mother’s Day”, the ad came out on Friday, March 16th. The ad shows a picture of a toddler with verbal abuse written all over his body , which included ‘pig’, ‘rioter’, ‘deadbeat’ and ‘wife beater’

The text states: “Fathers4Justice are writing to all advertisers this Mother’s Day to inform them that the Mumsnet web site carries abusive and distressing anti-male content which promotes gender hatred against men and boys. We believe that the general sexist labelling of men and boys as ‘rapists’, ‘paedophiles’ and ‘wife beaters’ is as unacceptable and offensive as racism and homophobia. Fathers4Justice are asking advertisers to suspend their advertising on Mumsnet until founder Justine Roberts adopts a zero tolerance policy to gender hatred. Promote a message of love, not hate this Mother’s Day. Join our boycott of Mumsnet at http://www.facebook.com/Fathers4Justice”.

The ASA rejected the ad on the grounds that Mumsnet was not responsible for endorsing some of the more loony gender-stereotyping that appears on its site from time to time (CAP Code rule 3.1 (Misleading advertising) and 3.7 (Substantiation)).

As ever with these things, the ASA is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Although the ad will never reappear in its current form, it has already had some effect, to the extent that Mumsnet seems to have become more vigilant in patrolling its content. Who, after all, would wish to draw advertisers’ attention to such unpleasantness? Which may well encourage F4J to have another pop. Albeit using milder semiotics.

Ad industry puts the boot into ‘treacherous’ Chartered Institute of Marketing research

June 8, 2012

An amusing industry spat has broken out between the Chartered Institute of Marketing and just about everyone else over the way the industry has been handling the vexed issue of marketing to children.

One year into the Bailey era, the CIM has released research that apparently shows 85% of parents are unaware of the Government-sponsored and industry-sanctioned ParentPort website – a forum that enables parents to vent their spleen at the way marketers have been commercialising and sexualising childhood. This, from one of its own, is an unforgivable undercut to the belly of the industry, which claims to have made Stakhanovite progress in grappling with an issue in which David Cameron has taken a highly personal interest.

The result has been uproar, with other industry bodies jostling to put the boot into the CIM research.

First to weigh in with apoplectic energy was the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA), the principal trade body for clients.

The riposte from ISBA’s director of public affairs Ian Twinn was masterly in its use of cutting irony: “ISBA is an active supporter of the industry pledge on the use of peer-to-peer marketing, along with many leading advertisers and media, but sadly the CIM remained aloof from the collective efforts of the wider industry.” Which was very silly of it, because now it’s going to enjoy zero support for its views.

Next up, and in similarly sarcastic frame of mind, is the Advertising Association, which represents clients, agencies and media. This week’s newsletter thunders:

“Thank goodness that advertising think-tank Credos has already done some far more thorough work on the same topic. Are advertising and marketing of concern to parents? Yes. But are they the biggest concern? Not by a very long shot. Are parents less concerned when rules and real life ads are explained in context? Yes they are. Should advertising respond? You bet – and we have. Ask (former AA chairman) Mark Lund.”

Industry regulator the Advertising Standards Authority has confined itself to a more diplomatic rebuke: “The work that regulators, including the ASA, continue to undertake in responding positively to the recommendations in the Bailey review (Letting Children Be Children) has been welcomed by government as well as family and parenting groups.” Subtext: ‘So what in God’s name do you people over at CIM think you are playing at?’

I’m beginning to feel sorry for David Thorp, CIM’s director of research. Just trying to help, eh, David?


TUI knocking campaign enables reeling Thomas Cook to roll with the punches

December 2, 2011

Jeremy Ellis, marketing director of TUI Travel, must be feeling pretty pleased with himself. Not only has he emerged, after 20 years in the wings, as the new brand-meister of Thomson Holidays and First Choice. He has also managed to land his principal rival, Thomas Cook, a satisfying punch below the belt with his first fully-fledged ad campaign.

Whether it’s a knock-out blow remains to be seen. But “knocking” it certainly is. And for that reason it’s attracting all the wrong sort of attention in the financial press, which is savouring the prospect of a second-round comeback from punch-drunk TC.

Knocking copy – the art of negative comparative advertising – is fairly unusual outside budget airlines and politics (which doesn’t, in any case, obey the usual advertising regulations).

And for good reason. It’s fraught with potential legal difficulties, and not many advertisers are robust enough to live with the consequences of an onslaught from the livid victim.

Of course, TUI doesn’t admit to the campaign being knocking. That would be to concede grubby, tactical opportunism. No, “This advertising campaign was meant” – and here I quote from the FT – “as a brand reassurance message and to clarify any confusion between the two separate companies.” And what confusion might that be? Well, “In the past there has been consumer confusion between our brands and our competitors’.” Of course there has: Thomson and Thomas Cook, they’re so alike, aren’t they?

Luckily, TUI has now been able to come up with some clear brand differentiation for the first time: ‘we’re the financially solvent ones’. As a USP it’s quite compelling, in its way.

Here’s the print ad run by Thomson: “Another holiday company may be experiencing turbulence, but we’re in really great shape.” And here’s the copy that featured on the First Choice website: “No worries about your holiday AND no worries about what you’re spending… Unlike a certain holiday company we could mention, you don’t need to worry about the way we run our business.” Ouch!

As is well known (see my earlier post), Thomas Cook has had a few tribulations this year: the Arab Spring for example, and the further collapse of its holiday market in France and Russia. All of which has resulted in 3 profit warnings, the ejection of its chief executive and the very public and humiliating supplication of its banks for £200m-worth of financial sticking plaster to bind the wounds until Spring 2013. Oh, did I mention the collapse of its share price to penny-status, overnight?

Nevertheless, Thomas Cook won’t be taking this particular drubbing, from its main competitor, lying down. It has reported the First Choice ad to travel trade body and regulator ABTA (though not the Thomson one which, bizarrely,TC’s interim chief executive Sam Weihagen earlier called “a very good ad”).

Ooooh, you say, and what are they going to do about it? Well, according to the ABTA code (Clauses 6B and 6L) no member may bring the industry body, or other members, into disrepute; nor may they make representations about the financial status of other members. Theoretically, contravention of the code can lead to expulsion from the organisation. While we’re there, I suspect Thomas Cook could also seek redress from the Advertising Standards Authority, under the CAP clause dealing with “denigration” of a competitor.

But it probably won’t; and nor will TUI be expelled from ABTA. A smack on the wrist is the worst it is likely to endure: the prospect of the UK’s biggest tour operator being ostracized by its trade body is frankly preposterous.

Nevertheless, I think TUI may have overreached itself, and for this reason.

Thomas Cook’s response to its crisis has not so far been well received, particularly by the travel agents on which it depends for much of its UK trade. The company recently ran its very own “reassurance” campaign, the key element of which was a one-off £170 saving (170 years old, geddit?) on 2012 holidays. For which read: more discounting in an industry where margins are already reduced to the bone, more undercutting of agents’ commission and, quite possibly, irresponsible dissipation of the recently acquired £200m bank loan.

Whether this perception is fair hardly matters. The point is it may well be reversed by TUI turning Thomas Cook into a maligned underdog. To Brits, if there’s one thing worse than bungling incompetence, it’s smug triumphalism.

Sooner or later Ellis may find himself smiling on the other side of his face.


Nation shocked to its marrow by sexy Marks & Spencer lingerie ad

November 30, 2011

Warning to all advertisers: the merest suggestion of female carnality in a public place will now be punished by a rap over the knuckles from the Advertising Standards Authority.

The regulator has holed a second high-profile brand below the waterline. Last week it was Unilever’s Lynx. This week it is – wait for it – Marks & Spencer.

M&S corrupting our youth? That bastion of frumpy, middle-class, Daily Mail-reading Middle England? Whatever is the world coming to? Next, they’ll be banning mince pies.

And yet, there it is in black and white, in the ASA’s official rescript: M&S is “socially irresponsible” because it has plied us with a “sexually overt” ad.

The ad in question is one of two which ran on bus-sides during September, featuring models sporting M&S’ most gossamer lingerie – and little else. To forestall complaints about gratuitous sexiness (unsuccessfully as it turned out), M&S decided to gloss the posters with a “filmic” finish – ie, it blurred them slightly. The ASA conceded that the context was relevant to the sector (how else do you display lingerie on a poster – on a washing line?). It also acknowledged that M&S had taken considerable care not to make the models’ poses too provocative. But it drew the line at one particular execution:

We considered that the pose of the woman kneeling on the bed was overtly sexual, as her legs were wide apart, her back arched and one arm above her head with the other touching her thigh. We also noted that the woman in this image wore stockings.

Shocking, a glimpse of stocking. You have been warned.

Mind you, it’s probably time someone brought M&S to book over its increasingly licentious conduct. Not a Christmas seems to go by these days without saturation scheduling of M&S’ most sexy models parading their underwear on our television screens.

If only M&S spent a little less money on its models and a little more on tarting up its far from glamorous interiors, perhaps we would all have less to complain about.


EC chief will sanction eavesdropping online if admen agree to behave themselves

October 22, 2011

Ever heard of Robert Madelin? The chances are you have not. Don’t worry, it won’t hold you back in life. Unless you happen to be a major advertiser or senior advertising executive. In which case, you should be ashamed of your ignorance.

Forget the Bailey Report, forget erotically charged images on posters. The frontiers of commercial freedom have already moved to a more strategic battle-front. One where the weapons of choice are electronic spies and surveillance.

If advertisers win this battle, the prize is very great. Using what is termed “behavioural targeting” – (sometimes “behavioural analytics” or “online tracking”, but let’s call it BT for the sake of simplicity) – they will be able to plot the course of any internet journey an individual ever makes. True, they won’t be allowed to know that individual’s real name, date of birth or physical address. But they will, by inference, be able to draw over time an incredibly intimate portrait of his or her most heartfelt material desires.

BT is, or rather will be, infinitely more valuable to advertisers than their best current tool, contextual advertising – which relies upon careful targeting of web-page content rather than anything known about the disposition of its visitor. Andrew Walmsley, a noted industry expert on the subject, is in no doubt that BT will supplant demographics-based contextual advertising:

We’re still going to see demographics used online, but principally so it can be benchmarked against other media. But, just as we sometimes hear the Fahrenheit temperature given on the weather forecast, it’s really just for the old folks.

His article is, by the way, a useful reminder that not all BT is the same: there are at least six varieties, of varying potency.

So, win-win: bring it on. Except, of course, that BT is deeply invasive of individual privacy. Technically, it relies upon access to an electronic spy – a special kind of cookie – planted in the heart of every individual’s hard-disk drive. Without consent, its exploitation could be considered not only an infringement of the Data Protection Act, but the wider European Human Rights Act. Many civil rights advocates would go further and invoke the shade of George Orwell. Unregulated, information acquired through online tracking could pass into the hands of shady, unlicensed third-party operators – for example, totalitarian-minded apparatchiks or deeply unscrupulous businessmen – with who knows what consequences for our civil liberties.

I come back to Madelin. Who is he? None other than the director general of Information Society and Media, European Commission (EC/INFSO for short). In other words, the senior civil servant in charge of the Brussels bureau concerned, among other things, with reconciling the needs – commerce among them – of the information society and EU civil liberties.

One of Madelin’s unenviable tasks is to act as ringmaster in the interpretation of a new ePrivacy Directive, promulgated in May this year but only fully effective from next spring.

A key bone of contention between the two warring factions he must conciliate – let’s call them “industry” and “civil society”, because that’s what they call themselves – is whether the new legislation actually requires “prior informed consent” being given to any organisations wishing to place or access files stored on a personal computer. And if so, just what definition is placed on the term ‘file’.

An extreme interpretation of these new rules would mean unmitigated triumph for the privacy lobby. Every time a cookie (not all of which are concerned with online tracking, of course) came up, it would have to be accompanied by a pop-up demanding instant consent or denial. Tedious in the extreme for the online user, and disastrous for industry.

The more nuanced civil society position seems to be an “Opt In” choice for the individual user, backed by  statutory legislation, but applicable only to those cookies capable of commercial online tracking.

Not surprisingly industry, whose position has been articulated by the Internet Advertising Bureau and something called EASA (European Advertising Standards Alliance), is having none of this.

It believes the civil society stance is flawed and naive. Specifically, the privacy lobbyists fail to understand that the free advantages we enjoy on the internet these days  – such as email, news, social networking, maps, entertainment – have only come about because they have been subsidised by advertising revenue. In this sense, BT is merely “the next stage” in a process which has been going on for two decades.

Worse, what lurks behind the civil society position is not so much a concern for advancing individual privacy as a profoundly hostile attitude to commerce – which is regarded as sinister and manipulative.

Industry is not arguing there should be no restrictions on BT, merely that they should be – you guessed – minimal and self-regulated; in fact, drawn up on the British ‘voluntary’ model of advertising regulation. It disputes that the “informed consent” required by the new legislation need be “prior”. Hence its adoption of what we might call an “Opt Out” strategy.

Put simply, the industry proposal amounts to a website where consumers can block online tracking by going through a long list of advertisers (those at least signing up to the IAB initiative) and clicking on check boxes. This mechanism will be identified by an icon appearing on sites where commercial tracking technology (particularly third-party cookies) is being used. And promoted along the lines of ‘better technology leads to a better life; but you, the consumer, remain in control’.

There is some doubt – even within the industry camp – that the IAB-devised plan will be enough to turn the trick on its own. Nevertheless, industry is becoming increasingly confident that is has won the day, barring a few concessions.

This confidence was backlit a few months ago by some extraordinary shenanigans in Brussels, when one member of the civil society faction stomped out of a Madelin-chaired committee meeting and subsequently accused Madelin of being “captured by industry“.

What this seems to mean is that Madelin has indeed come down in favour of Opt Out. But there will be a price to pay. It will include an open, independent, audit to which advertisers will have to submit themselves; total transparency (whatever that means, exactly) in their dealings; and an effective consumer tribunal for handling any complaints.

A key voice in all of this will be that of Chris Graham, the UK Information Commissioner and – as former chief executive of the Advertising Standards Authority – something of an expert on how the self-regulatory system works. (Purely coincidentally, the ASA is likely to be the UK  regulator if Opt Out prevails.)

Graham has yet to pronounce ex cathedra on the subject. But the broadly benign texture of his views can be gauged by a visit to the ICO website, where the talk is of the industry facing up to ‘transparency’ and ‘independent audits’.

My understanding is that the advertising industry is being given a few more months’ grace to define its regulatory position satisfactorily. Failing which, Madelin will move down the path to statutory legislation. As can be imagined, every sinew will be stretched to ensure he does not feel the need to do so.

Before leaving this convoluted subject, it might be of passing interest to hear what the punter, rather than self-appointed experts speaking on his behalf, thinks about BT.

Handily, McCann Erickson has just published a relevant piece of research under the McCann Truth Central banner. The study, which quizzed 6,500 people in the US, UK, Hong Kong, Japan, India and Chile, shows that people are indeed concerned about attacks on their personal privacy. But targeted marketing is way down the list of threats, the two principal issues being the security of financial data and the security of personal reputation.

McCann WorldGroup global IQ director Laura Simpson notes that:

65% of people around the world are aware of Web tracking and 44% are aware that marketers use it to determine the interests of consumers. “Many welcome it,” she adds, because they believe there is a fair exchange, including access to promotions and discounts and ads directed at them that are more relevant to their needs.

Then again, as one industry commentator on the article points out, that enthusiasm may be conditioned by poor understanding of how sophisticated BT actually is.


Grazia and News of the World – they’re as bad as each other

August 12, 2011

Once again, the media has been caught hacking into our Royals’ most intimate details. In this case, it’s Grazia, the fashion magazine, that has been forced into a red-faced confession.

The hacking was performed on Her Most Gracious Highness the Duchess of Cambridge’s vital statistics. The magazine’s publisher, Bauer Media, have fessed up to wilfully carving at least an inch or two from their cover girl’s waist in a blatant attempt to boost circulation.

Unlike the revelations surrounding News of the World royal correspondent Clive Goodman’s attempts to hack into the voicemails of Harry and Wills’ aides for salacious tittle-tattle, this particular exposé is unlikely to rock the nation to its marrow.

That said, it’s worth asking why these two incidents merit a different scale of reaction. To be sure, one is deemed illegal while the other is not. On the other hand, both activities imply a similar, depleted, set of moral values. Both use cynical deception and dishonesty to achieve their ends. Both parasitically exploit the lives of celebrities, one by attempting to degrade them, the other by fawning and flattering their figures. Both deploy lame and implausible excuses when caught in the glare of exposure – betraying a smug belief in the public’s infinite gullibility.

Grazia, whose May 9 issue was in the dock at the Press Complaints Commission (soon to be decommissioned after doing such a sterling job in tackling the phone-hacking scandal), is not of course alone in perpetrating this kind of thing. Doctoring of images is a widely condoned practice, in advertising as well as editorial.

From time immemorial the Advertising Standards Authority has inveighed against advertisers, usually in the health and beauty sector, who impossibly idealise their models, sometimes to the extent of manipulating their skin tint. With little effect it would seem.

L’Oréal, a recidivist with multiple offences on its ASA charge sheet, has recently been caught at it again. This time for digitally touching up images of actress Julia Roberts and supermodel Christy Turlington.

The ads were withdrawn, but the offence had already been committed. And it will be committed again, albeit in a different guise.

What we are talking about here, to highjack a buzz phrase used to explain the recent riots, is a culture of impunity.


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