Control of Standards of Advertising

The Television Act is in many respects an instrument of consumer protection. It gives to a public board, the Independent Television Authority, the duty and the power to exclude from television any advertisement that could reasonably be said to be misleading. Secondly, Section 4(5) of the Act requires the Authority to consult with the Postmaster-General from time to time as to the classes of goods or services which should not be advertised and the methods of advertising that should not be used in television, and to carry out any direction that he may feel the need to issue in these fields, over and above anything the Authority itself, with his concurrence, may propose to do.

The Advertising Advisory Committee

Under Section 8(2) of the Television Act, the Authority is required to appoint “a committee representative of organisations, authorities and persons concerned with standards of conduct in the advertising of goods and services (including in particular the advertising of goods and services for medical or surgical purposes) to give advice to the Authority and programme contractors with a view to the exclusion of misleading advertisements… and to prepare and submit to the Authority a code of standards of (advertising) conduct….” The Authority must comply and secure compliance with the code of standards recommended by that Committee.

The Advertising Advisory Committee was appointed by the Authority early in 1955, in good time for it to produce the required code of standards before transmissions began in the autumn of that year. Three of the Committee’s eleven members (excluding the Chairman) represent organized advertising bodies that are “concerned with standards of conduct in the advertising of goods and services”. These are the representatives of the Advertising Association, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, and the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers. Five represent organizations that are concerned in particular with standards of conduct in “the advertising of goods or services for medical or surgical purposes”. These are the representatives of the Ministry of Health, the British Medical Association, the British Dental Association, the Pharmaceutical Society, and the British Code of Standards Committee (the last being a body composed of Press, periodical, and advertising interests that is concerned with the voluntary control of medical advertising in media other than television). There is a representative of the Retail Trading-Standards Association (a national association of retail traders and manufacturers that is concerned to bring influence to bear against manufacturers or traders whose advertisements or selling methods or descriptions or merchandise are misleading to the public), and finally two independent members who are simply concerned about standards generally.

Members of the Advertising Advisory Committee are not restricted to expressions of opinion on subjects of special interest to the bodies they represent. They bring their minds to bear on all issues before the Committee and are fully aware of their own and the Authority’s responsibilities to the public.

Code of Advertising Standards

The Advisory Committee prepared the necessary code of advertising standards before transmissions began in 1955 and has kept it under review. The code is published by the Authority as the Principles for Television Advertising and is made freely available to advertisers and their agencies. It is reproduced at the end of this chapter. It takes the form of a general code with two appendices containing detailed rules about (i) specific classes of advertising and methods of advertising, and (ii) the advertising of medicines and treatments.

On being consulted by the Authority in accordance with Section 4(5) of the Television Act, the Postmaster-General accepted those parts of the code which deal with the classes of advertising and methods of advertising that should not be allowed.

Supervising Advertisements

Since the Authority itself is ultimately responsible for the broadcasting of the advertisements, it maintains a small department headed by a senior specialist to keep a general watch on the standards of television advertising as it appears on the screen and to raise any matters of detail or general interest that seem to need further consideration by the Authority, its Advisory Committee or the programme companies. But there are some 6,000 new television advertisements every year, and before they are accepted for broadcasting it must be ensured that they conform, in content and style, with the principles laid down by the Authority and its Advisory Committee. That considerable day-to-day task is devolved in practice to the programme companies, subject to consultation with the Authority’s advertising control staff in cases of doubt.

In advance of the production of a filmed advertisement the script, including fairly detailed indications of the filming directions, is submitted by an advertising agency to a special department of the Independent Television Companies Association (ITCA) for consideration in relation to the Principles for Television Advertising and the fund of interpretative rules and understandings that have over the years been developed in operating the television code of advertising practice. If necessary, the ITCA asks for substantiating evidence in support of an advertiser’s claims and always calls for full details of competitions or gifts to be advertised as enclosures in packets, substantiation of sales figures that may be claimed for a product and of claims of a technical nature. The ITCA may also find it necessary to seek fuller information about the scenes or situations that the advertiser proposes to depict. This information is circulated to all of the programme companies and any problems that arise are discussed by an experienced group of their representatives — the ITCA Advertisement Copy Committee.

To assist the Copy Committee in the assessment of claims involving medical, scientific or technical facts, the programme companies retain as advisers a panel of independent consultants, all eminent in their professions of medicine, dentistry, nutrition, analytical chemistry, dermatology, veterinary surgery and others, who have been nominated for the purpose by their professional bodies or are otherwise acceptable to these bodies. Every new television advertisement for a proprietary medicine, for example, is submitted by the ITCA to the appropriate consultant or consultants, so that the Copy Committee can have before it an independent expert opinion on the validity of a claim and, if necessary, on the tone and style of its presentation.

There is a twofold need for these relatively stringent precautions. First, there is the Authority’s legal duty to secure high standards of probity in the advertising through adherence to the spirit as well as the letter of the Principles for Television Advertising. Secondly, there is the nature of the medium. It is recognised not only by the Authority and the programme companies but by the advertisers that while the factual bases of advertising claims should be of consistent reliability in all media, the presentation of the facts calls for special care in television. Sound and motion give a peculiar air of reality to television advertising and the impression of person-to-person communication can add so much to its impact.

Advertising and Children

The depth and complexity of the operation may be judged from one small but important example. Paragraph 10 of the Principles for Television Advertising deals broadly with the conditions under which advertising may be addressed to children. These include the avoidance of any method of advertising that might result in harm to children physically, mentally or morally; or which takes advantage of their natural credulity and sense of loyalty; or which would encourage them to enter strange places; or lead them to believe they will be inferior to other children if they do not own some product; or encourage them to make a nuisance of themselves. Practical extensions and interpretations of these rules require that free gifts to children in packets of cereals, comics, and so on, are presented in such a way as to make clear their true nature and size — for example, by showing the gift in a child’s hands or beside some common object that fixes its scale. While children are not expected to be unnaturally and incredibly well-behaved, they must nevertheless be shown to be reasonably good-mannered (though opinions are bound to differ about this). Of even more importance, very young children should not be shown in dangerous practices which others might be tempted to emulate to their peril—for example, climbing on boxes or chairs to reach high shelves. And advertisers are expected to do their best to exclude from family scenes in advertisements anything that seems at variance with the proper safety precautions that should be taken by parents with small children—for example, a fireguard must be fitted in front of an open fire if young children are about, and “mothers” should not leave medicine bottles at the bedside of young “invalids”. If children are to be shown in the street, they should not be shown to behave unsafely in traffic; and if they are to be seen at play in the street, it should not be an open street but a play street.

Bearing in mind that there are many advertisements featuring family scenes or children; that they are designed and produced by a multiplicity of advertisers, agencies and film units; and that in any case so much depends upon subjective judgment, it would be little short of miraculous if there were nothing at all in the advertisements to which exception might be taken in one or other of these respects by some viewers. But it seems reasonable to assert that enough care is taken to satisfy most observers.

So the careful consideration of new advertisements in relation to the Principles for Television Advertising proceeds effectively before the advertisers and their agencies set the film producers’ cameras in motion to record the “commercials”. Voluntary co-operation at that early stage helps to ensure that the complexities, inseparable from the responsible use of such a persuasive advertising medium as television, are resolved before expense is incurred in the production of a costly film that might otherwise be found to need amendment when it is finally examined before acceptance for broadcasting.