Lucy Barrett: Are adverts becoming more offensive?

Lucy Barrett on advertising: Are ads becoming more offensive? Readers of the Advertising Standards Authority's annual report could easily conclude they are

Are ads becoming more offensive? Anyone who reads the Advertising Standards Authority's annual report, out last week, could easily conclude they are. 2008 was a bumper year, in which the ASA dealt with a mind-blowing 26,433 gripes, up 2,241 on 2007. What is going on?

Fearful of legislation, the advertising industry talks endlessly about the great strides it has made in behaving responsibly, so it's hard to know what to make of all this dissatisfaction. Are ad complaints, as one advertiser said to me, just a way for the "moral minority to voice their righteous indignation"? Another said we live in a "blame society", where consumers want to make someone or something accountable for society's problems. Or could it be that advertisers are prepared to take more risks to get their brand noticed in an increasingly crowded media landscape, and some agencies are willing to accommodate this?

The increase in complaints could be put down to several factors, but it would be wrong to conclude that there is an overall increase in irresponsible advertising. First, it is not a massive increase of complaints year on year, and the ads complained about were, by the standards of previous ASA reports (in which sex- and race-related complaints were more abundant), a bit tame. That said, there are complaints that should be and are taken seriously. Last year's most complained-about ad, for Barnardo's - which showed repeated scenes of violence and drug-taking to illustrate the consequences of child abuse - received a whopping 840 complaints. The ASA did investigate, but decided the violence was justifiable, so they were not upheld.

Second, the complaints procedure can also be manipulated by pressure groups, which drives up the number of complaints, as does the fact that it is now so easy to complain. Eleven years ago, BBH - coincidentally the same agency responsible for the Barnardo's ads - created an ad featuring a dead hamster for Levi's, which received a then record number of complaints (544). Back then, the ITC oversaw advertising complaints, and advised you to make your complaint official by writing a letter. At this point, a great deal of people would have simply given up. Now, the majority of complaints to the ASA are made by clicking on a button.

The ease with which you can complain, and the transparency of the process, can only be good for the advertising industry; and the ASA policy of not investigating every complaint - it didn't investigate VW's shivering dog (there was a trainer present) despite 743 complaints, or the Heinz "gay kiss" ad, despite the fuss some newspapers made - means that advertisers, agencies and media owners all respect its decisions.

The ASA faces challenges, and in particular needs to sort out what to do about the internet - increasingly, online ads draw the largest proportion of complaints, yet the ASA does not receive funding from internet advertisers. It is only traditional advertising that pays for the upkeep of regulation, but at some point it will have to become statutory for internet advertisers to start paying for the ASA as well. Also, websites are not seen as part of its remit, yet consumers have nowhere else to turn when they want to protest about one - if the ASA doesn't regulate them, who should?

• Lucy Barrett is the editor of Marketing

Lucy Barrett

The GuardianTramp

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