What’s Going on with the Advertising Standards Authority?

Don’t get me wrong, I have enormous respect for the ASA. Above all else, they are seriously annoying the quacks and charlatans, notably “What Doctors Don’t Tell You“, the magazine that makes up silly stories about health, disease, and treatments. But I am wondering whether the ASA is falling victim to the IT-driven tick-box mentality that pervades modern society and business.

I’ve been chipping away at sites that promote homeopathy, now that the ASA has said it will resume accepting such complaints. but I have had a couple of responses like this one:

I have been in touch with the Compliance team at CAP. They have informed me that they are treating this matter as part of a sector-wide issue and are working towards achieving a compliant level playing field across the industry. This is a long-term project and they are aware of the issue with this advertiser, amongst others, and will be taking sector-wide action accordingly.

I hope this addresses your concerns.

No it doesn’t. I have asked the ASA what this means, and received no reply. I’ve tried contacting the Committee for Advertising Practice (CAP) and they don’t reply to their web contact form, or even answer the phone – it just rings and rings. One of my complaints has been outstanding since early this year and still the advertiser carries on making therapeutic claims.

Now there seems to be another fly in the ointment. Here’s a response to another complaint, this time about osteopaths:

As you will be aware, your complaint has been pasted (sic) to me in the investigations team and we will take up your complaint with the advertiser shortly. In the meantime, it has come to my attention that you involved (sic) with Health Watch UK. We therefore consider that you have a particular interest in the outcome of the complaint, beyond that of a regular member of the public.

In the interests of transparency, we name complainants who are not regular members of the public. In instances where a competitor company or campaigning organisation complains, we name them specifically. In other instances, such as this one, we do not personally name the complainant but will tell the advertiser, and include in any published report, brief information about the complainant. We therefore intend to tell Not Just Backs, and include in any published report, that you are representing Health Watch UK. We will not disclose your personal details.

I’ll also recommend to my colleagues that we refer to you in the same way in relation to any future complaints you raise that we take forward.

If you are not happy to be named as above, we may not be able to take your complaint/s forward any further.

This is bizarre. For me to agree to be named as representing HealthWatch (of which I am a trustee), I will have to get their consent every time. Does this apply to my other memberships? I am a Fellow of both the Institute of Clinical Research and the Society of Biology, either of which could have an interest in the outcome. Do I have to get their permission as well? I am perfectly happy to be named as a trustee of HealthWatch, but not that I am acting in any way for that charity. The ASA seems incapable of understanding the distinction. I don’t think they mean to be obstructive, but that’s how it comes across.


UPDATE 7.7.2014

The ASA eventually agreed to define me as `a HealthWatch trustee’ without implying that I am acting for HealthWatch. I am still not sure whether this affects how the ASA will handle the complaint. It should make no difference, as only the evidence for the claim matters. I also got another reply about the policy on homeopathy – exactly the same wording as I had before. This tells me nothing about what is being done, and meanwhile the advertiser carries on regardless with therapeutic claims. Hardly satisfactory.


3 Responses

  1. That’s crazy. I’m a trustee of the Rarer Cancers Foundation, but that doesn’t mean I represent them in anything and everything I write!

  2. […] me were some rather odd exchanges with the Advertising Standards Authority, which I covered in my last post. The Committee on Advertising Practice (CAP) seems to have some sort of `hands off’ policy, […]

  3. […] while back I actually became rather frustrated about the ASA’s lack of transparency regarding complaints about homeopathy. Every time I sent a complaint they said they were carrying out a sector-wide initiative regarding […]

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