Dr Vernon Coleman and the Advertising Standards Authority

Just who is the ASA protecting?

Vernon Coleman

Those aware of the ASA's reputation and past record will not be surprised to hear that the ASA (a private organisation mainly funded by big business - including drug companies) has once again shown itself in its true colours by wanting to ban an advertisement which simply invited readers to visit my website to study the facts about animal experiments. (I had no plans to reuse the ad but the ASA, which knew this, decided to hold a full enquiry and ban it anyway.)

The evidence supporting the advertisement which the ASA wants to ban is (as it says in the advert itself) readily available on my website. The website includes several thousand pages of evidence, including evidence given to the House of Lords.

The advertisement appeared in a number of national newspapers and we received no complaints. The ASA itself claims to have received one complaint. This may have been from a vivisector or vivisection supporter.

The ASA's report criticising the advertisement is bizarre.

They were advised to study the evidence on my website. In their report they admitted that they had viewed some of the content (they actually used the word `some') but were unable to find what they were looking for.

The ASA then claimed that the ad was misleading!

It seems absurd that the ASA should go to such effort to ban a widely published advert about which just one anonymous individual (possibly someone with a vested interest in vivisection) has allegedly complained but consistently refuse to criticise adverts which have attracted a torrent of public criticism. The effort seems especially absurd (and questionable) when one realises that the ASA knew that there were no plans to repeat the ad. Why go to so much effort to ban an ad that wasn't going to appear again?

The ASA seems to me to be riding roughshod over my fundamental rights as an individual, an author and an advertiser in the interests of protecting a large, international industry which can quite well look after itself.

But maybe this is not surprising.

Although some people assume it is a statutory, official body the ASA isn't anything of the kind. It is a private organisation, financed mainly by large advertisers (including drug companies and, presumably, the Government). And I regard the ASA as more concerned with protecting those sources of finance than the interests of consumers. Last year the organisation took no action at all against the five advertisements which had caused the most offence to ordinary consumers. Five advertisements which had between them attracted more than 3,600 angry complaints were left untouched by the ASA. All these advertisements had been placed by large companies.

On the other hand the ASA has consistently ruled against advertisements placed by anti-vivisectors - even though only one complaint may have been received.

For example, when the Research Defence Society (an organisation set up and funded to defend vivisection) complained about two anti-vivisection leaflets of mine, the ASA quickly banned them. Amazingly, one of the people on the ASA committee which banned the leaflets was the vice chairman of L'Oreal (UK) Ltd, a large cosmetics company which has in the past been criticised by anti-vivisectors for its use of ingredients tested by means of animal experiments. The committee member also held an important position at the Cosmetics, Toiletry and Perfumery Association. It is difficult to take the ASA seriously but newspapers and magazines do sometimes take notice of its judgements, and anti-vivisection campaigns have suffered as a result of the ASA's activities.

I have never been a member of the ASA and do not pay the ASBOF levy. I have long been a critic of the ASA. (My book How To Stop Your Doctor Killing You contains trenchant criticism of the ASA. Unsurprisingly, after one complaint, the ASA banned ads for that book.)

I did contemplate requesting a judicial review, making a complaint under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act (Freedom of Expression) or protesting that the ASA's actions were a restraint of trade. But I have, for the time being, decided on simpler action.

In future I will not respond to the ASA's self-important communications. All mail and e-mails will be returned unopened. Telephone calls will not be accepted. If the ASA continues to harass my office I will make a formal complaint to the police. I would, however, welcome and happily work with a fully independent and accountable advertising watchdog.

A complaint about the ASA has already been lodged with the Office of Fair Trading.

Copyright Vernon Coleman June 2006