The Advertising Standards Authority : Part III

Appendix 2: Correspondence with the Advertising Standards Authority

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Text of a letter to the ASA dated 12th February, 1999

Dear Sir/Madam,

As a professional psychologist interested in the subjects of perception and that of consumer behaviour, I have observed over a number of years various examples of what seems to be ‘subliminal’ advertising in British magazines. By that I mean aspects of adverts that have little or nothing to do with the main subject of the advert and are presented at virtually subliminal levels. These aspects of the ads are clearly not truly subliminal as the images are moderately to reasonably clear upon careful perusal. However, most people tend to use the term subliminal advertising when referring to this type of advertising following the publication of various controversial books by Wilson Key over the past few decades. In addition, the term seems appropriate for the adverts I have in mind (at least for the purposes of this letter) given that definitions of subliminal in terms of advertising practice are vague and woolly.

Whatever the definition or lack of definition of what is subliminal advertising, I believe that advertising association guidelines disapprove of this type of advertising and would like some more information on the subject. I would therefore appreciate it if you would send me a full copy of the current British Code of Advertising Practice (bill me if necessary) and if possible, any (historical ?) literature you might possess on the subject of subliminal advertising. These could be supplied by e-mail if this is convenient. [personal e-mail address excised from this copy of the letter]

I would also be interested to know if any member of the public has ever complained to the ASA about the subject and, if so, when this was and what the response of the ASA was.

Additionally, I would be interested in whatever literature you have regarding the functioning of the ASA - a somewhat dated leaflet that I possess refers to a leaflet ‘Advertising Standards Authority: What it does and how it works’. Is this still available?

Finally, how would the ASA treat any complaints about ‘subliminal’ type advertising given the relatively subjective and controversial nature of the ‘existance’ of such advertising material?

These four points all arise from consideration of ‘subliminal’ advertising but there is an associated matter I am interested in. This is related to cigarette advertising in imported magazines. U.K. guidelines, so I believe, discourage the publishing of ads showing people smoking yet imported magazines for cigarette brands on sale in the U.K. continue to show such behaviour as guidelines in the publishing country are different. Can you tell me if the A.S.A.’s has a policy on this matter and if there is one, how it is implemented?

I look forward to your reply with interest.

Yours sincerely,

Jim Hagart, C. Psychol.

Senior Lecturer in Social Psychology

 

 

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In the following letter and extracts the author's comments are entered in Red.

Text of a letter from the ASA dated 16th March 1999

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The Advertising Standards Authority Limited

2 Torrington Place London WC1E 7HW Telephone 0171-580 5555 Fax 0171-631 3051

Internet https://www.asa.org.uk

                                                                                                                      16th March 1999

Dear Mr. Hagart

Thank you for your letter of 10 March.

I regret that there is no specific information that I can send you regarding the ASA’s position on "subliminal advertising" as it is not a subject with which we are regularly involved. There may have been one or two attempts to use this kind of approach in television advertising, however, and I suggest that you contact the Independent Television Commission (Tel. 0171 255 3000) for further information. Please also find enclosed more general information concerning the role and remit of the ASA. I regret that I have not been able to enclose a copy of the British Codes of Advertising and Sales Promotion as they are in very short supply, but the Codes can be downloaded from our website: www.asa.org.uk

As for our position with regard to complaints, we have not formally investigated any complaints about subliminal advertising, but if a consumer felt that a non-broadcast ad of this nature was not "legal, decent, honest and truthful", we would certainly look into it. [ The clear implication is that semi-subliminal advertising does not come under the remit of the ASA and therefore is of no interest to them.] The outcome would depend completely on the nature and content of the advertisement: as we have no past cases to refer to, it is difficult to give you a more accurate picture.

With regard to your query about cigarette advertisements appearing in foreign magazines, we would refer complaints about such ads to the country in which the magazine is most widely circulated. The advertisements would be subject to the regulations from that country and if these regulations were more lenient than UK regulations, we would be unlikely to take further action. [ In other words, if tobacco companies find means of introducing ads into this country using magazines produced abroad then there is nothing the ASA can or will do about the matter. See the Yanks page for some additional commentary on this matter. ] If there is a particular advertisement which you would like to complain about, however, please send it in with a letter of complaint and we will look into it. [ I did (choosing the Impulse Ico ad) but since it did not fall foul of the Legal, Decent, Honest and Truthful criteria the complaint was not upheld. ]

I hope you will find this information useful.

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Text of a letter to the ASA dated 1st July, 1999

Dear Mr Ballinger,

Semi-subliminal advertising in the U.K.

I was rather concerned to note in your letter of 16th March, 1999 in response to my letter of the 10th March that the ASA has no policy regarding the type of marginally perceptible or semi-subliminal advertising that I was enquiring about.

Although advertising including such semi-subliminal elements does not breach any of your key criteria of Honesty, Legality, Decency and Truthfulness, except perhaps with regard to decency in some cases, public awareness of the use of such advertising would undoubtedly bring the profession into disrepute. In addition a variety of other factors seem relevant to the use of techniques that aim to exploit fears, insecurities, uncertainty and lack of sophistication, particularly on the part of younger viewers. Their use is in breach of the general principles underlying ASA guidelines and disapproved of by the public in general. Public reactions over the years against such advertising has also influenced legislation in a variety of countries and various extracts from ASA guidelines regarding cigarette and tobacco advertising would also appear to be relevant e.g.

a) advertisements should not play on the susceptibilities of the immature or vulnerable

b) advertisements should not exploit the immature, the young, the socially insecure, or those with physical, mental or social incapacity.

Any form of semi-subliminal advertising would therefore seem to be a form of advertising that ought to be actively discouraged by the ASA.

It is possible that the ASA's current position on this issue has arisen because of the extensive but inconclusive, not to say obfuscating, debates about subliminal advertising in the past. These have rarely shed light on any aspect of subliminal advertising and certainly distracted from those unethical aspects of ads that are not truly subliminal. However, here I am clearly addressing phenomena that, although often included under the rubric of subliminal advertising, are actually perceptible - as are all the examples that have ever been offered of so-called subliminal advertising. Their use is clearly unethical. The semi-subliminal elements within these adverts are on the borderline of perceptual ability by virtue of being disguised or embedded in other material and observers do not consciously notice anything unusual about them. Observers only consciously perceive these elements when their attention is drawn to them. An indication of this lack of conscious awareness is undoubtedly the fact that the ASA has never had any complaints about such advertising.

As those claiming professional expertise within the ASA have failed to attend to such issues, and lay members of the public do not have the interest or expertise to detect such advertising, it seemingly takes a professional observer such as myself to bring this unethical practice to the attention of the ASA. The presentation of the Impulse Ico ad in the attached Appendix is therefore the basis for a formal complaint about the use of semi-subliminal techniques intended to influence consumers without their having the ability to appreciate or respond to certain types of messages incorporated, implied, connotated or alluded to by the semi-subliminal features of the ad.

The semi-subliminal elements within the Impulse Ico ad are, in retrospect, relatively obvious and open to various interpretations. But note that I use the term obvious with reference only to retrospective appreciation of the ad. If you ask individuals to scrutinise an original copy of the Impulse Ico ad (this has been in print in young women's magazines for the past 2-3 months) before they are acquainted with the contents of the Appendix you will see what I mean. Most observers – in fact, I would go so far as to say virtually all observers - do not notice anything usual. Even those who may feel distressed/intrigued/irritated by something that they cannot quite 'pin down' are unable to identify the cause of their response.

As the ASA cannot deal adequately with past breaches of the guidelines, either stated or implied, there is little point in my raising complaints about ads no longer in circulation. However, I think it is only fair to indicate that I am writing a book about the subject and have virtually finished preparing a set of web pages - the Impulse Ico Appendix is a modified version of one such page. I can assure you that the Impulse Ico ad is not an isolated example and many more examples will be placed in the public domain within the next year. This may offer sufficient incentive to your colleagues to 'place their house in order' and do more than simply address the matter of the Impulse Ico ad – whatever the outcome of your deliberations on this matter.

I would suggest, therefore, that the ASA has a problem on its hands. In the interests of the ASA and the public at large, this complaint should not simply be treated as a complaint about a specific ad but rather as an trigger to consider a more general practice that needs to be stamped out. My research would indicate that many major advertising companies and their clients make use of such techniques and, of course, I am not in a position to scrutinise all the ads that are produced annually. Additionally, many of these companies have made use of semi-subliminal techniques for many years, possibly indicating - despite contradictory claims by researchers tending to focus on subliminal advertising rather than semi-subliminal material - that such ads are effective in influencing some consumers.

Given the relatively widespread use of semi-subliminal techniques in British advertising it should not be difficult to find individuals who are knowledgeable about these techniques. However, should ASA members be surprisingly naïve, unaware or unwilling to acknowledge the use of semi-subliminal techniques, I will be only to willing to provide comprehensive information at professional consultancy rates plus expenses. I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

Jim Hagart, C. Psychol.

 

 

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Text of a letter from the ASA dated 5th July 1999

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The Advertising Standards Authority Limited

2 Torrington Place London WC1E 7HW Telephone 0171-580 5555 Fax 0171-631 3051

Internet www.asa.org.uk

                      5 July 1999

Dear Mr. Hagart

Thank you for your letter of 1 July.

While your points have been noted and will be kept on file, at present the ASA does not have sufficient reason to devote its scarce resources to research into subliminal/semi-subliminal advertising. As I pointed out in my last letter, this is not currently a significant area of complaint, and use of this form of advertising per se does not necessarily seem to constitute a breach of our Codes.[ As was noted above. ]

If you feel that the practice itself is ethically questionable and that advertising agencies are using subliminal techniques more and more, you might want to talk to the umbrella body representing advertising agencies, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (tel. 0171 235 7020). [ The matter was taken up with the IPA and correspondence with the IPA can be found by clicking here. ]

I have, however, passed your complaint regarding the Impulse Ico advertisement to our complaints department, who will contact you shortly.

I hope that this clarifies our position: I would also be interested in seeing your completed web pages, and would be grateful if you could e-mail the relevant address to me at [email protected]

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Text of a letter from the ASA dated 20th July 1999

in response to a complaint about the Impulse Ico advert illustrated on the The Ads of the Month Page .  

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The Advertising Standards Authority Limited

2 Torrington Place London WC1E 7HW Telephone 0171-580 5555 Fax 0171-631 3051

Internet https://www.asa.org.uk

                                                                                        Please Quote: A99-05990/MY/ggw


Dear Mr. Hgert (misspelling on the original)

ELIDA FABERGE

Thank you for your recent letter.

The ASA is responsible for ensuring that advertisements comply with the British Codes of Advertising and Sales Promotion, and one of our functions is to investigate complaints that advertisements break the Codes.

Further to Steve Ballinger's letter regarding subliminal advertising, the complaints department has obtained copies of the Impulse ICO advertisements. We have considered the advertisements and how they will be seen by most people and decided that they are not in breach of the Codes.
[Note that the emphasis is on 'seen' not on perceived, consciously or preconsciously, and on the existing codes. Semi-subliminal ads can therefore easily 'fly under the radar of the ASA'. They also are not in breach of their current guidelines. ]
Although we will not be pursuing your complaint on this occasion, thank you for taking the time and trouble to write to us.

Yours sincerely
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Manisha Yagnik (Ms)

 

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Authors comments on the ASA letters.

The letters  from Steve Ballinger and Manisha Yagnik would clearly indicate that the ASA has little interest in serving the interests of the public when advertising agencies set out to manipulate their responses using semi-subliminal advertising. The remit of the ASA is seemingly restricted to applying the current rules. Some critics would say these are self serving rules, limited, as they are, by consideration of the issues of Honesty, Legality, Decency and Accuracy.    Whilst these aims are laudable, attempts by advertisers to manipulate the minds of consumers, particularly those lacking the relevant knowledge to defend themselves, are seemingly considered unproblematical.  This seems particularly galling considering Steve Ballinger's Catch 22 comment, namely that this issue does not produce a significant number of complaints. Could any technique that is intended to circumvent conscious appraisal ever produce a lot of complaints. I somehow doubt it.

When semi-subliminal elements in ads are specifically designed not to be perceived the lack of complaints seems to be an argument in favour of policing their use, rather than an argument for ignoring the matter as is currently the case.   When the majority of such ads also seem to be produced to further sales of potentially harmful and addictive products to young adults (and children) this blasé attitude is likely to seem mystifying to any intelligent member of the public.   One can only conclude, in line with various comments above, that the ASA primarily serves the interests of the advertising community and will continue to do so unless, and until, public pressure forces it to modify its stance.

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This page has multiple parts: click to continue

You are on Part 3 and Parts 4-5 have yet to be allocated. See also correspondence with the Insititute of Practitioners in Advertising

 

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Last Revised: 20th September, 2001

 

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