Self Censorship and Aversion to Free Speech

The Advertising Standards Authority in the UK is banning more adverts than ever and has more rules than ever pertaining to what advertisers can’t say or do in their own ads. It sees this as success and progress, but it’s not. This is a sign of self-censorship in the industry and of a public becoming increasingly hostile to free speech and expression.

The ASA is the authority in the UK advertising industry. Its stated mission is to “make every UK ad a responsible ad.” It is not funded by taxpayers, but through a levy on buying advertising space. Advertisers can choose not to pay the levy, but they cannot produce an advert that doesn’t conform to the ASA’s Advertising Codes and they cannot refuse to comply with the ASA’s rulings. 

This is because the ASA has a “legal backstop” in the form of the criminal prosecuting powers of the National Trading Standards authority. Which include unlimited fines and prison sentences of up to two years.

Upon reading the ASA’s last annual report, I discovered something curious. The ASA, like good parents or good doctors, also judges its success by the frequency of its interventions. But they do it in a perverse way. 

The ASA sees the fact that its proactive interventions have increased by 32% from last year as evidence that it is doing a better job as an authority. It claims that in 2015 it changed or removed over 4,500 adverts, stating proudly that this is a “record” number.

But if the ASA is doing a good job of educating advertisers about what is a responsible ad, then over time shouldn’t it be exercising its authority less, and not more? If more adverts than ever apparently needed to be corrected or banned, which is to say were ‘irresponsible’, then surely the ASA is failing as an authority in the advertising industry – not succeeding.

How to make sense of this? Well, what explains this is that the ASA’s definition of what makes a responsible ad has become more stringent over time.

A timeline provided on its own website illustrates a continuous shrinking of the sphere of acceptable behaviour by advertisers in conjunction with gradually expanding ASA powers and remit. It’s not surprising that it proudly displays this on its own website because it views its own increasing intolerance and censorship as progress.

The ASA started life as a voluntary authority. For the first 27 years of its existence, it had no legal power to enforce its advertising standards. Given that it wasn’t abolished during this time we might reasonably assume that the industry and the public felt it was doing a good job of regulating advertisers. But in 1988 the ASA turned to the dark side, as it were, when it acquired legal powers by proxy through the Office of Fair Trading.

Since then, ASA edicts on advertising have been enforced, ultimately, at the point of a government gun, and have only increased in number. The ASA’s remit expanded to regulating broadcast advertising, and then Internet advertising. And three years ago, it took on responsibility for regulating Online Behavioural Advertising.

The ASA, in 50 years, has gone from being a peaceful industry regulator to a coercive one, ultimately backed by the brute force of the State. It has abandoned the principle of self-regulation upon which it was founded and has adopted the stance of regulation by compulsion. Using force means what was once self-regulation in the advertising industry is now self-censorship.

It’s a sad but not uncommon outcome in an age where generally the sphere of freedom is shrinking because state power is expanding. The advertising industry was lured decades ago by the siren call of the State and is now self-censoring to an alarming degree (although the ASA still calls it self-regulation). The ASA’s Advertising Codes, written by two industry committees, amount to 280 pages of rules for advertisers, agencies and media owners to follow.

You know it’s a bad time for civil liberty and economic freedom when industries are not only censoring themselves but believing this is progress. That the ASA is banning (it calls it “withdrawing”) far more adverts than ever is a sad reflection of increasing public intolerance of free speech and expression.

The first step to wisdom is to call things by their proper names. Pointing government guns at the heads of advertisers in order to prevent them from saying or doing certain things in their adverts, and thus preventing them from freely engaging in economic exchanges with agencies and media owners on agreed terms, is not self-regulation; it is censorship by coercion, and it violates property rights. Which form the very foundation of freedom and prosperity.

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