The Advertising Standards Authority – not fit for purpose

Scotland’s The Nice Way Code campaign got an almighty and justifiable thrashing from campaigners last year, particularly for its nonsensical advice, and notions of collective responsibility. However, with one judgement, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has managed to make me feel sorry for it.


Here’s a still from one of the Nice Way Code videos – ‘Think Horse’.

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 17.09.20

Fairly unexceptional, you might think.

Yet this particular scene apparently prompted five people to write in complaint to the ASA.

Five complainants challenged whether the ad was irresponsible and harmful, because it showed a cyclist without a helmet or any other safety attire, who was cycling down the middle of the road rather than one metre from the curb.

‘Irresponsible and harmful’.

This is complete guff, of course. At no point was the cyclist travelling ‘down the middle of the road’. ‘The middle of the road’ in these cases never refers to a precise location, more to the fact that someone is in someone else’s way, or slightly inconveniencing them. And the lack of safety attire or helmet is neither here nor there – these are not legal requirements.

Over and out, you might think. Complaints dismissed, chucked straight in the bin. Reasonable points about national guidance on how to cycle, the need to make cycling look ordinary and attractive, and the lack of legal requirements are commendably made by both Cycling Scotland and the advert’s producers. Indeed, Cycling Scotland point out that the making of the advert was actually supervised by one of Scotland’s most experienced cycling instructors.

But it seems the ASA know better, for they have UPHELD – UPHELD – this complaint. They write

The ad must not be broadcast again in its current form. We told Cycling Scotland that any future ads featuring cyclists should be shown wearing helmets and placed in the most suitable cycling position.

In more detail, particularly about what the ASA think is ‘the most suitable cycling position’ –

We understood that UK law did not require cyclists to wear helmets or cycle at least 0.5 metres from the kerb. However, under the Highway Code it was recommended as good practice for cyclists to wear helmets. Therefore, we considered that the scene featuring the cyclist on a road without wearing a helmet undermined the recommendations set out in the Highway Code. Furthermore, we were concerned that whilst the cyclist was more than 0.5 metres from the kerb, they appeared to be located more in the centre of the lane when the car behind overtook them and the car almost had to enter the right lane of traffic. Therefore, for those reasons we concluded the ad was socially irresponsible and likely to condone or encourage behaviour prejudicial to health and safety.

There is so much wrong with this it is impossible to know where to start. But just a couple of things leap out. The advert has essentially been banned because it contravenes recommendations in the Highway Code about helmets. Not rules – advice. The word used is ‘should’, not ‘must’. Here’s the relevant section –

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 21.35.46

The Highway Code

This ruling opens the door to adverts being banned if the people cycling in them are not wearing ‘reflective clothing and/or accessories’. Even an advert featuring someone riding a bike in darkish clothes could be banned by the logic of this judgement – because you ‘should’ wear light-coloured clothing.

It also suggests that vast numbers of car adverts should be banned. Why? Rule 152.

You should drive slowly and carefully on streets where there are likely to be pedestrians, cyclists and parked cars.

You should drive slowly and carefully in urban areas. All those car adverts showing cars zipping around are toast, according to this judgement – at least they should be. Just one example.

Not especially slow and careful in areas where there are likely to be pedestrians. So I suggest people get busy and start filing complaints on the basis of this judgement.

If they were feeling mischievous, they could actually file complaints to the ASA about Department for Transport and Transport for London adverts suggesting cyclists ride centrally. Because, you know, that’s ‘socially irresponsible’ and might force a driver to even slightly enter a different lane, causing them to spontaneously combust. The ASA should be taking this seriously, and slapping down the DfT and TfL.

And the final silliness – look back at the still of the advert that’s the source of the complaint. There’s someone riding a bike, fairly slowly, without head protection, being overtaken by someone in an open-top car which can legally travel at 70mph, with his head fully exposed in the event of a crash.

Then ponder the absurdity of judging only the former activity as ‘irresponsible and harmful’.

This entry was posted in Advertising Standards Authority, Helmets. Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to The Advertising Standards Authority – not fit for purpose

  1. pm says:

    The ASA clearly regards itself as the ultimate expert authority on a vast range of issues from theology to road safety. Don’t bother with cycleability or the like – get your cycling training from the ASA!

    Makes one wonder why it hasn’t just taken over the running the country, really, seeing as it seems to consider itself to know more than everyone else on such a wide range of topics.

  2. rdrf says:

    Nice post.
    I think this is about to blow up big time – hopefully putting the ASA’s nose well out of joint. I suggest everybody keeps an eye on the responses to the ASA from CTC etc.

  3. Do please report back after some moment when, feeling a tad mischievous in your anger, you have filed complaints to the ASA about Department for Transport, Transport for London, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz etc. I think you would do them rather well.

    Have you perhaps considered the possibility that ASA are trying to promote the british film industry, by making in necessary to re-shoot all those cheerily dubbed continental ads that feature happy people on bikes, whether advertising yoghurt, sanitary towels, or foreign travel? Imagine, the Amsterdam Tourist Board Welcomes You, set to Tulips From Amsterdam and filmed in grim Hi-Viz technicolour on the Euston Road.

  4. I hope the relevant party – Cycling Scotland – is making a complaint under this procedure:

    This might go particularly well if examples of judgements on complaints about car adverts can be dredged from the library.

  5. I suspect a lot of car adverts would be banned for encouraging drivers to drive on the wrong side of the road. the relevent part of the code would be 20.2 Advertisements must not condone or encourage a breach of the legal requirements of the Highway Code. (note the word legal)

  6. Right, every car advert I see now, I’lll be noting and writing complaints letter to the ASA. Most ads I see aren’t representative of the reality and break laws, not to mention the safe sleeping babies in the back being exposed to lots of pollution, just by virtue of being in a car in a city.
    The soft top Merc is surely the car equivalent of no helmet, not that the top of a car is much help if a lorry lands on top of you.

  7. Mark Hewitt says:

    “they appeared to be located more in the centre of the lane when the car behind overtook them and the car almost had to enter the right lane of traffic”

    WOW what the actual!
    The whole premise of cycling safety is that the car *should* “enter the right lane of traffic” that’s the fundamental point, so somehow assume that cycling in such a way that cars have to change lanes is dangerous or irresponsible is in itself dangerous and irresponsible.

    Whoever made this decision needs to be dragged away and given cycle safety training – today.

    • Quite! In the bit about helmets they quote the Highway Code recommending them, and yet they completely ignore the recommendation in the Highway Code that cars _should_ overtake using the other lane, treating the cyclist as if they were as big as a car. There’s even a nice picture in the Highway Code of how to overtake a cyclist!!

  8. Ken Spence says:

    As I penned most of the Bikeability curriculum advising on road position it seems I should now just jack it all in now that the Great God ASA has spoken. Can’t believe I got it all so wrong!

  9. andrewrh says:

    I have forwarded this article on yo my MP, Sir George Young, and asked him what the government will do to enlighten the ASA, as well as update the Highway Code to make it more reflective (!) of proper and entirely safe cycling. Previously the ASA have allowed car manufacturers to lie about ‘road tax’. This latest ruling does indeed prove the ASA is not fit for purpose in this regard.

  10. Richard Leason says:

    Check the last few frames of the ad – the cyclist is avoiding a series of potholes. Correct road positioning.

  11. Paul M says:

    The sheer logical absurdity of the ruling can be summed up in its first two paragraphs:


    The ASA acknowledged that the ad was primarily encouraging motorists to take care when driving within the vicinity of cyclists.”

    For all the faults of the Niceway Code campaign, for which it rightly got plenty of stick from cycle campaigners, the intention of this particular ad was to encourage motorists to take care around cyclists. In an important sense, the vulnerability of the cyclists shown in the ad, whether that vulnerability was, in anyone’s view, self-inflicted, was the entire point of the ad – cyclists are vulnerable road users so it is your responsibility as a driver to take special care.

    Imposing ignorant and uninformed conceptions of how cyclists can make themselves safer was not merely not the point, it was in contradiction to the entire point of the ad. The ad is emasculated by this imposition. It no longer means what it was intended to mean. The change, in effect, introduces a subliminal message – ignore what we say in the voice-over about taking care around cyclists, they are entirely responsible for their own safety and if they are not kitted out in helmet and high vis etc they have only themselves to blame, so you needn’t worry about it.

    Let us just hope that someone higher up the organisation takes the adjudicator of tis decision into a darkened room and duffs him up until he “gets” it.

  12. Angus H says:

    The car pictured is a vintage Mercedes. Mid 1980s, plus or minus a bit. So no airbags, no ABS, no roll bar or cage, and metal bumpers to inflict maximum damage on any pedestrian unfortunate enough to get in the way. Nice aesthetics, and personally I think the roads would be a much more civilised place if all cars were open-top (plus say goodbye to the idiot excuse of driving “because it’s raining” – wear a coat you muppet), but from a safety perspective that particular car is dire by modern standards .

    • Ian says:

      Not sure I’d agree it’s ‘dire’.. I agree it could be improved by fitting a steering wheel spike and a smaller engine, and the bumpers should clearly be replaced by rubber, but at least the driver in that car will feel some measure of vulnerability.

  13. Petitioning the independent reviewer of ASA decisions about this is somewhat like writing to a judge to express the hope that they uphold the principals of the law – but as it happens we *do* want judges to uphold consistency and law, not make prejudiced attacks upon minorities they dislike accommodating on the roads:

  14. Sarah says:

    The focus on helmets is depressing, but I would accept that the ASA could have asked the wrong questions to the wrong experts and been given wrong answers in a process that would have had some shred of legitimacy about it. The road positioning advice is much more bizarre. It’s not just that the ASA should have grasped (or asked) why cyclists need to stay out of the pothole zone and discourage close passes. They have also managed to miss the fact that,cyclists have a duty of care to pedestrians that they would be breaching spectacularly by riding within half a metre of the edge of the road. Whizzing past pedestrians within touching distance would both be very intimidating for pedestrians and likely to result in lots of collisions.

  15. We acknowledge that your ad is backed up by official guidance, and data, and the law and all that, but….

    Christ! – you made that poor bloke in a Merc go into the other lane!

    A Merc, for crying out loud!

    Across the dotted white line!

    What if an elephant had been coming the other way?

    Anything could have happened to him in that open topped car
    – he wasn’t even wearing a helmet!

  16. Clear Case in which ASA ruled in precisely the opposite direction, ignoring advisory notes in the Highway Code in order to uphold only the Law (relating to mobile phone use while driving):

    • pm says:

      Seems the ASA think its fine for the motorist as long as it isn’t illegal, yet for cyclists its necessary to go beyond what the law requires.

      Maybe they need to be renamed the ADSA (Advertising Double-Standards Authority).

      • Quite. That was precisely my point. And in this case lets call double standards what they are: irrational persecution of cycling.

        Or… are they so irrational? Judicially barmy, of course, put prudentially? The ASA is a quango, but from whence do its staff and finance arrive? Anyone know? How much money do you put on there being a revolving door between ASA and the advertising industry? Would that explain the special indulgence issued to large lumps of metal that generate substantial advertising revenue? Should Private Eye be having a look-see?

        • No need – it’s all perfectly open! The ASA is set up to have “Advertising industry background” members and “independent” members, in a ration of approximately half and half – with the caveat that “independent” can mean people who have spent most of their careers in commercial television, i.e., funded by advertising. You can only spend so many months on the board, the fee for which is not meant to compensate full-time work, and then as an “industry” member you go back through the revolving door.

          Would it be uncharitable to suppose that “industry” members are going to be bending the rules to help products which generate lots of advertising work, and coming down like a ton of bricks on anything which might sell itself?

          Not really uncharitable, no, but of course: *that’s what the independent members are for, isn’t it?* Isn’t it? Well, who sends out the invites for these vital counterweights? And why would you have an inbuilt poacher party on the gamekeeping council?

  17. rdrf says:

    Something for you all to do: There’s a petition already set up on rse-asa-ruling-a13-238570-finding-cyclists-should-be-shown-wearing-helmets-and-placed-in-the-most-suitable-cycling-position-no-more-than-0-5-metres-from-the-parking-lane . OK , David Robjants got there first, but repeating shouldn’t hurt.

  18. It turns out that the Advertising Standards Agency falsely advertises it’s own complaints procedure.


    ASA: “If you wish to complain about the ASA in relation to its role regulating TV or radio advertising, you may contact Ofcom.”

    Try it, 0300 123 3333, and guess what, ASA are telling you fibs. Saying “you may contact Ofcom” is roughly equivalent to saying “you may jump in a lake”. Ofcom have no procedures or competence over the ASA in any respect.

    Does this mean we can now launch an advertising standards complaint, against the Advertising Standards Agency?

  19. Whoops: web address on which the ASA falsely advertises it’s own complaints procedure is:

    ASA: “If you wish to complain about the ASA in relation to its role regulating TV or radio advertising, you may contact Ofcom.”

    Try it.

  20. Pingback: An idiotic judgement by the Advertising Standards Authority | Road Danger Reduction Forum

  21. Pingback: The ASA rules against advertising safe cycling | Pedaller

    • On the other hand, too much weight can be put on the make-up of the council that adjudicates. Most of the work that the ASA does *never reaches council*. Roughly 90% of broadcast advert issues brought to their attention are judged outside remit – and not by the council. Of those 10% of that the ASA sends for further attention, not all of those reach council either. So a considerable proportion of the work that ASA does in dismissing or progressing complaints is not done by the individuals named as members of the council. Where do the people who do this work come from? Might some of them by “advertising industry background”? Here’s a stat. Customer satisfaction for complainants is at 50%. That sounds very judicial and fair, doesn’t it? Customer satisfaction from advertisers: 77% Maybe they send in the odd bad review to throw us off the scent.

  22. Mark Hewitt says:

    The ASA have now withdrawn their ruling pending review.

  23. rdrf says:

    As Mark Hewitt says, today the ASA withdrew their ruling, as he says “pending review”. There area few points to make here:
    1. The good news: There has been an almighty bout of fully justified indignation from the more civilised members of British society: bloggers, a massive number of commenters on blogs, a great petition, letters directly to ASA from the likes of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, cycling organisations etc. It is good to see so many people being – justifiably – steamed up, and t has certainly had an effect.
    2. But don’t get too excited: We don’t know what the procedure of the “independent” review will be. It’s going to be difficult for the ASA to justify it’s take on positioning, but it may repeat it’s stuff about helmets. The struggle needs to continue here.
    3. The Road Danger Reduction Forum and some others have raised the issue of the ASA’s views on car advertising and indeed representations of motor traffic. If it gets worried about rule and law breaking in advertisements, the fact is that rule and law breaking occurs with typical driving: is that going to be addressed as a problem?
    4. The ASA is unlikely to be rigorous of car advertising because it is a body which comes from the advertising industry. Does anybody think ti is going to get really tough with a principal source of its activity?
    5. A big problem with the ASA is that when it does censure advertisers, all it does is tell people not to do it again. So advertising of motoring is never going to be really policed. A classic case of what happens when a powerful industry self-regulates. Having said that, when it comes to images of cyclists, if the censure over helmets goes through, we can expect marketing and communications people who have put forward everyday images of cyclists riding in normal clothes to be scared off. Look at the images advertising the next London Bike Show – that’s the only kind of thing we will have.

    So this episode is not over and the problem has not gone away.

  24. Indeed not. The evidence be damned – advertising helmets is an advertising industry win-win: frighten the consumers back into their expensively advertised boxes, and flog a lid to any stragglers. After all, Barriers To Entry are the perfect low-use product, and there are no limit to the number of them you can get stocked at your local Police Station. So expect them to *try it on*. If they do, time methinks for a Judicial Review of the whole creaking machine. You *cannot* go around clamping daft made-up notions of social responsibility on flowery skirted redheads while letting off mobile phone usage courtesy of Volvo Ltd on precisely opposite reasoning. To behave in this way is *unlawful* – and there are enough signatures on that petition to start a defence fund.

  25. Pingback: What is the Advertising Standards Authority for? | Road Danger Reduction Forum

  26. This Advertising Standards Authority may be the self-regulatory organization on the advertising industry . The ASA can be a non-statutory organization and so cannot interpret or impose legislation.

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