The Thought Police
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) recently ruled on an ad showing a Mazda 323 Sport against a blurred background. The caption read, "Why Keep Up with the Jones's When You Can Overtake?" The ASA ruled that the ad "glamorised speed" and "condoned fast driving". They directed Mazda to withdraw the ad, and told them not to do it again.
The text of the Authority's adjudication clearly states that Mazda consulted their Committee of Advertising Practice Copy Advice Team before running the ad. The ASA also accepted that the ad's main message was not about speed. They agreed that the photograph did not suggest that the car was breaking the speed limit, or being driven recklessly.
So how did Mazda violate section 48.3 of the ASA code, advising advertisers not to "portray speed in a way that might encourage motorists to drive irresponsibly or to break the law"? According to ASA Press Officer Donna Mitchell, the Mazda conformed to the letter of the law, but violated its spirit. "It gave an overall impression that going fast is something you should aspire to."
The ASA's decision was based on a single complaint, and a simple premise: that sexy images of fast driving have a negative impact on driving behaviour. Even the Secretary for the Committee of Advertising Practice, the group responsible for writing the ASA's rules, admits that there's no scientific basis for this argument. "I don't know of any research which links performance car advertising and accidents," Guy Parker says. "It's the fear of a link that's led to this rule."
That happened in 1995, after motor industry and advertising execs met with the DETLR to discuss the "problem" of performance car ads. Once they'd consulted with the government's road safety lobby, carmakers and ad agencies worked with the ASA to hash out the current rules. In other words, the auto industry itself is partially responsible for the advertising prohibition against equating speed with fun.
This move to self-censorship came against a background of intense pressure from the EU. Six years before the ASA code, the European Conference of Ministers of Transport passed a resolution urging member states "to regard as inappropriate any advertising whose content extols performance or power and treats driving as a sport [or] shows scenes evoking motor racing, lightning acceleration and top speeds."
Dr. Oliver Grey, Head of The European Ad Standards Alliance (EASA), says that Eurocrats were not deterred by the absence of research into the affects of advertising on driver behaviour. "Brussels is never terribly concerned about facts. They simply perceive a problem, then do something about it." Dr. Grey says UK car advertisers figured a strict voluntary code was the best way to fend off European action.
Meanwhile, the Independent Television Commission (ITC) saw fit to impose similar editorial restrictions on TV car adverts. Section 11.9.2 of their code says advertisers must not "encourage or condone fast or irresponsible driving… nor refer to speeds over 70mph… nor demonstrate power, acceleration, handling characteristics etc except in a clear context of safety." And "any references to such characteristics must not imply excitement or competitiveness."
As a statutory body, the ITC has teeth. So far, they've yanked TV ads for the Peugeot 206 GTI (showing magician David Blaine accelerating a 206 into the distance) and the Volvo S40 T4 (showing a child's fascination with speed-blurred images). As in the Mazda case, the Peugeot investigation was launched after a single complaint. The Volvo investigation was launched after 15.
Press Officer Helena Hurd freely admits that the ITC's rules aren't based on the amount of public outcry an ad elicits, or scientific evidence of its harmful affects. In fact, Ms. Hurd believes the ITC's code obviates the need for any research into the impact of performance-related car ads: "Maybe because the rules exists, the problem doesn't arise."
The ITC's code is currently up for review. The agency has consulted the motor and advertising industries on the current wording of the motoring section. No one in either camp has expressed a desire to modify the code. Once again, the people who make and sell sports cars have given their tacit approval to the prohibition against suggesting that driving fast– legally– is desirable.
The auto industry's pre-emptive Euro appeasement on this issue has set a dangerous precedent. After all, if car ads with blurred backgrounds are considered too inflammatory for impressionable readers, why should magazines or websites be allowed to use them? Why should car media like evo, pistonheads.com or Top Gear be allowed to "glamorise" fast driving? If you take the argument to its logical conclusion, why should manufacturers be allowed to build powerful sports cars in the first place?
I suggest you email your answers to the ASA, ITC and EASA at the addresses below, before it's too late.
More by Robert Farago
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