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The Advertising Standards Authority : Part II

Extracts from Guidelines and Briefing Papers

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Modified ASA logo.Text of an ASA background briefing paper

Established in 1962, the Advertising Standards Authority promotes and enforces the highest standards in all non-broadcast advertisements by supervising the advertising industry’s system of self-regulation. The ASA ensures that everyone who commissions, prepares and publishes advertisements in non-broadcast media within the UK observes the British Codes of Advertising and Sales Promotion.

The ASA covers all advertising except for that on radio and television. This includes advertisements in magazines and newspapers, posters, leaflets and circulars, personally addressed direct mail, sales promotions, cinema, videos, the Internet, computer games and CD ROMs. The Codes and the self-regulatory framework that exists to administer them have been developed to work within and to complement legal controls. Labelling and packaging, for instance, are the responsibility of local Trading Standards Departments. Television and radio advertisements are the responsibility of the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority respectively.

The Codes require non-broadcast advertisements to be "legal, decent, honest and truthful", socially responsible, and prepared in line with the principles of fair competition. They reverse the burden of proof applied in law - it is up to advertisers to prove any claims that they make, not for the ASA or anyone else to disprove them. If they cannot do so, the advertisement must be withdrawn. The ASA Council applies the Codes in the spirit as well as the letter, making it almost impossible for advertisers to find loopholes or ‘get off on a technicality’. This common sense approach takes into account the nature of the product being advertised, the media used, and the audience being targeted.

Code Compliance levels are extremely high. The ASA’s most recent research shows that 98% of poster advertisements, 96% of press advertisements and 85% of direct marketing advertisements comply with the Codes. In 1997 the ASA received 10,680 complaints about 8291 advertisements. Following investigation, 512 advertisements were found to break the Codes - against an estimated 30 million advertisements and 2.8 billion direct mailings published each year.

The Costs of ensuring the system remains effective are met by a modest 0.1% surcharge on advertising expenditure. This is collected by a separate body to ensure the Authority remains independent and impartial. Importantly, the system involves no expense for taxpayers.

The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) is the industry wing of the self-regulatory system. It comprises 20 trade and professional associations representing all sectors of the advertising and media industries. CAP is responsible for devising and updating the Codes and requires its members, as part of their terms and conditions of business, to ensure that the rules are observed. CAP’s Copy Advice team, based in the ASA offices, also plays a vital role in pre-empting problems by helping those who create, commission and publish advertisements to check them against the Codes before publication. This service is fast, free and confidential. In 1997 it handled over 10,000 enquiries.

The ASA Council makes the final decision as to whether the Codes have been broken, It operates independently of the Government and the advertising industry. It consists of twelve members appointed by an independent Chairman, currently Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. Council members serve a three year term, are chosen for their breadth of experience and do not represent any sector or business.

The work of the ASA includes handling over 10,000 complaints a year and dealing with more than 15,000 general queries. However, the Authority places equal emphasis on monitoring compliance in order to pre-empt problems within specific areas. Last year the ASA studied the health and beauty sector, weapons advertising, direct marketing content, and list and database practice. In order to ensure it remains in touch with public opinion, the ASA also commissions independent research into matters of taste and decency. Its public and industry awareness programme involves conducting industry training seminars, regional consumer conferences, and promoting self-regulation and consumer awareness through a busy press office.

An effective range of sanctions underpins the success of the ASA in maintaining high standards. If an advertisement breaks the rules, the Authority asks the advertiser to withdraw or amend it. In the overwhelming majority of cases advertisers comply immediately with such a request. If they do not, media owners will invoke their standard terms and conditions of business and refuse further advertising space. Advertisers and their agencies may also jeopardize their membership of trade organizations, as well as the financial incentives attached, if they persistently break the Codes’ rules. The Authority’s adjudications are published in the ASA Monthly Report which is circulated widely to the media. It generates a high volume of adverse publicity for advertisers who mislead or offend and also encourages high compliance rates with the Codes.

A legal backstop also exists to deal with the rare occasions when the ASA is unable to prevent a misleading advertisement from reappearing. We can refer the case to the Office of Fair Trading, which can seek an injunction to prevent misleading claims from being repeated.

The European Advertising Standards Alliance was co-founded by the ASA in 1991 and is an alliance of 23 European self-regulatory bodies. Its aims are to promote self-regulation and to co-ordinate an effective cross-border complaints system. It has investigated over 160 cross border complaint investigations to date.

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Modified ASA logo.Text of an ASA background briefing paper


The rules for tobacco advertisements are drawn up by the tobacco manufacturers, the Department of Health and the Advertising Standards Authority as Animation of artist smoking. part of the voluntary agreements regulating the promotion of cigarettes and other forms of tobacco. The rules form a special section of the British Codes of Advertising and Sales Promotion generally known as the Cigarette Code.


The Authority’s responsibilities are to act as the arbiter of the Code’s rules and to supervise a pre-clearance procedure under which all cigarette advertisements must be scrutinized and certified as acceptable before they can be published. The ASA supervises only the content of the advertisements. The health warnings and controls on their location as well as sponsorship are covered by other voluntary agreements outside the Authority’s scope.



The essence of the Code is that advertisements should not encourage people to start smoking nor should they entice smokers to smoke more or to excess.

As with every other part of the Codes, the Cigarette Code’s rules are applied in the spirit as well as the letter. Broadly, they include the following requirements:

Youth: Advertisements should not be designed or presented in a way which has a greater appeal to those under 18 than to the general public. Anyone shown smoking should clearly be over the age of twenty five. Advertisements should not play on the susceptibilities of the immature or vulnerable nor should they feature heroic, cult or fashionable figures in a way that might appeal to the young. In the 1995 edition of the Codes, these rules were tightened to prohibit humour being used to attract young people.

Health, context and environment: Advertisements should never suggest that smoking is safe, popular, natural, healthy or necessary for relaxation and concentration. Cigarettes should not be shown in the mouth and no advertisement should associate smoking with healthy eating or a wholesome lifestyle.

Social success: Advertisements should not imply that smoking is associated with the rich, successful or fashionable. They should not claim or imply that smoking is a sign of masculinity or that it enhances feminine charm. Nor should they imply a link between smoking and social, sexual, romantic or business success. The attractions of smoking should not be exaggerated.

Promotions: Advertisements for coupon brands should not feature products unless these can be obtained through the redemption of coupons collected over a reasonable period of average consumption.


No cigarette or hand-rolling tobacco advertisement may appear unless it has demonstrated that it conforms to the rules in the Cigarette Code. This requirement came into effect in 1975 and applies to all new and existing brands advertised in non-broadcast media.

Publishers and poster site owners will not accept any cigarette advertisement unless it is accompanied by a stamped and numbered certificate of clearance. This proves that the advertisement has been vetted prior to publication. Designs and concepts are submitted for a view at an early stage so that work and expense are spared on unacceptable schemes.


Although the ASA receives a small number of complaints each year about cigarette advertising, these frequently raise objections about smoking rather than the content of advertisements. It is a matter for Parliament to decide whether advertising should be allowed for cigarettes; legislation would be needed to prevent such advertising.

Since each cigarette advertisement is assessed under the Codes prior to publication, complaints rarely raise a point which has not already been considered. However, the opinions voiced are taken into account in assessing future campaigns. 1997 saw 38 complaints about tobacco advertising, of which 1 was upheld relating to 1 advertisement. This compares with 11 9 complaints in 1 996, of which 58 were upheld relating to 2 advertisements.


The Cigarette Code does not apply to advertisements for schemes, events or activities sponsored or financially supported by tobacco manufacturers or importers. Also excluded are products such as snuff, herbal cigarettes, cigars, and pipe tobacco - as well as ancillary products such as pipes, cigarette holders, matches or lighters.

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Two Extracts

from the Advertising Standards Authority Guidelines

Two extracts from the Advertising Standards Authority guidelines (6th edition) with regard to how the Code affects alcohol advertising.

1.1. The Alcoholic Drinks Industry, with others, is aware that a small, but significant minority cause harm to themselves and others through misuse of alcohol.  They share the concern with this social problem, the causes of which are complex and varied.  There is no evidence connecting such misuse with the advertising of alcoholic drinks.

1.2. The industry is concerned that its advertisements should not exploit the immature, the young, the socially insecure, or those with physical, mental or social incapacity.   The industry accepts that its advertising should be socially responsible and should not encourage excessive consumption. 

The ASA maintains a web site that is updated monthly . It contains a searchable database of recent ASA adjudications as well as more information on a wide range of subjects.  Interested readers can find it   at

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Links to illustrative advertising

Some of its advertising, as indicated in the attached pages, falls far short of the standards these guidelines aspire to.  See the commentary on ads for Marlboro, Jim Beam, Hooch, Budweiser, Pirelli, Peugeot and others.

Modified ASA log.

The ASA maintains a web site that is updated monthly . It contains a searchable database of recent ASA adjudications as well as more information on a wide range of subjects.  Interested readers can find it   at

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To the best of the author's knowledge none of the illustrations, in the format used on this site, are subject to copyright. If copyright has been inadvertently breached please contact the author in order to rectify the matter. All brands and logos referred to or illustrated on this site are the property of the relevant companies and copyright holders. However, commentary and other information produced by the author can be freely copied and distributed. Similarly, illustrations of ads, so long as they are accompanied by commentary or are presented in the form of parody, can also be copied and distributed but please acknowledge as the source. Translation of tobacco company ads and relevant commentary into languages other than English will be particularly welcomed.

Last Revised: 20th September, 2001


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