ADVERTISING in Australia has been self-regulated since 1996.
Self-regulation is the process whereby the advertising industry participates in and is responsible for its own regulation, as opposed to government regulation or co-regulation by government and industry.
The Australian Association of National Advertisers’ advertiser code of ethics covers all forms of advertising and is administered by the Advertising Standards Bureau. There are also separate codes for some specific product categories such as alcohol and for specific audience groups such as the AANA code for advertising to children.
Still, repeated studies of self-regulatory systems in Australia and overseas have concluded that industry self-regulation tends to be largely ineffective in protecting people — particularly young people — from inappropriate advertising messages. They also find that an effective system requires an independent body with the power to veto advertisements and impose sanctions.
That’s why public health advocates often express concern about the role and nature of advertising in Australia, and the influence of this advertising on the health of Australians. For example, there’s a large body of evidence showing that food advertising to children encourages consumption of unhealthy foods, that alcohol advertising encourages young people to drink alcohol at an earlier age and in greater quantities, and that advertising for pharmaceutical products encourages reliance on medication rather than healthy lifestyle changes.
Unfortunately, despite repeated reviews of the self-regulatory system, which have consistently found that it’s ineffective in preventing young people from being exposed to inappropriate messages about alcohol, food and other health-related products, the government has declined to take action on the regulation of advertising.
The Advertising Standards Board is the agency responsible for addressing consumer complaints about advertising. The ASB recently undertook a review “to understand community and industry perceptions about the independent reviewer system as it currently operates, so that ASB may improve and enhance the system and ensure compliance with international best practice as foreshadowed in 2008″.
Those fortunate enough to receive an invitation to participate had until October 22 to respond to the issues paper. They were also told that others invited to participate included all individuals and organisations that requested a review of a board decision or who had contacted ASB regarding the process; other organisations or people who’ve expressed interest in this system, including other industry bodies, government agencies, incorporated bodies, media, educational institutions; and independent reviewers.
It’s, well, peculiar that I wasn’t invited to participate given that I’ve frequently expressed interest in the self-regulatory system, have published several articles on problems with the process and outcomes, and am well-known to the ASB.
Yet I found out about the review only when one of my students happened across it on the ASB website and forwarded the information to me. However, I did contact the ASB and obtained an extension of time to enable me to submit comments. But I was surprised at my omission from the list of invitees in the first place.
I was even more surprised when I mentioned this review to a group of colleagues at a roundtable on alcohol advertising on October 22, the due date for responses.
None of my colleagues were aware of this review being undertaken. And they’re a group of high-level representatives from government agencies, incorporated bodies and educational institutions, all of whom also had publicly expressed interest in the self-regulation process.
Meanwhile, the ASB assures us on its website that self-regulation “ensures consumer protection”.
The subject of the recent review — possible changes to the independent reviewer system — is of great importance to consumers and to organisations focused on protecting consumers from inappropriate advertising.
Topics covered in the issues paper included the cost of applying for an independent review — presently $500 for community members, $1000 for nonprofit organisations– the timeframe for review and the grounds for review. These are issues that have a serious effect on the general community’s ability to seek review of an ASB decision that they think is flawed.
For instance, nonprofit organisations such as the Cancer Council Victoria cite the $1000 fee as a significant reason for not seeking review of a questionable decision on a complaint regarding food advertising.
When high-profile individuals and organisations with a long history of interest in, and commentary on, self-regulation of Australian advertising are not invited to comment — despite the inference in the ASB’s communications that this was the case — I can only wonder how other, less well-resourced members of the community will have been able to contribute their opinions.
If, as the ASB tells us on its website, “the aim of self-regulation is to maintain high advertising standards and ensure consumer trust and protection for the benefit of all of the community”, then once again what’s been demonstrated is that the present system is inherently flawed.
Sandra Jones is director of the Centre for Health Initiatives and a professor at the University of Wollongong.