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Smirnoff's pretentious TV advert requires further distillation

10 July 2015

The ASA has ruled that the current version of Diageo’s recent high-profile television advert for Smirnoff vodka should not be shown again, on the basis that the advert implied alcohol ‘contributed to the success of a social occasion’.

The ad, launched on 22 September 2014, depicts someone walking into a bar filled with pretentious, unfriendly people. The new arrival then orders a Smirnoff drink at which point the scene transforms into a fun and vibrant party filled with easy going, welcoming people. The strapline for the advert is ‘Filter the unnecessary, keep the good stuff’. The ad was part of a £15 million fully integrated pan-European campaign that also involved outdoor and digital media as well as a number of experiential street demonstrations.

The fact that the advert was banned by the ASA is not on its own controversial, though it does underline how difficult it is to advertise alcohol in an entertaining and engaging way (and it should be noted that, in the advertising equivalent of a dissenting judgment, Clearcast stood by the advert in its broadcast form). What is particularly interesting however is that in this case – no complaint was actually ever made – the ASA unilaterally decided to conduct its investigation without third-party instigation.

The decision can be seen as a direct implementation of the ASA’s five year strategy document, published in 2014, entitled ‘Having more impact; being more proactive’. At the centre of this strategy is the aim of making adverts more responsible, increasing consumer confidence in adverts and in their commissioning advertisers in a more proactive way, as the name of the strategy suggests. The ASA is seeking to achieve this by raising awareness of its role as an advisor to businesses, as a regulator, and by focusing its resources where it can have most impact. The proposal was also that the ASA should be taking a more active, rather than reactive, approach to ensure that advertising does not breach the ASA’s guidelines. The ASA are making good on their word.

The decision suggests that the sorts of advertising that the ASA is likely to rule on without needing a complaint to be made, is advertising with: wide exposure, selling well-known products, in a manner which it is in the public interest to curtail. This makes sense given the ASA’s desire to focus its resources and maximise its impact. It follows that adverts aimed at vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly, and the financially unstable will also be at a higher risk of investigation without public complaint.

Five years ago the ASA’s focus was very much on what the organisation should be regulating. Today, as this decision demonstrates, those decisions have been made (the answer was – pretty much all advertising) and the focus has shifted to how the regulator should fulfil its role. The ASA has provided us with its plan for that, and with decisions such as this one we can see that plan being put into action.

Was this the right decision? The wording of the ASA’s ruling would seem to suggest that the ASA considered that it was an open and shut case, presumably on the basis that: alcohol arrived, and there was social success. That is understandable, though one could argue that, being set in a bar, there was no new introduction of alcohol, and that adverts such as this are not new – this advert bears a marked similarity to the classic ‘I’ll have a Babycham’ advert of 1986, right down to the colour palette.

It is also interesting that Clearcast stood by this advert in its broadcast form. The fact that there had been no public complaints must have had a bearing on that decision, and, hopefully, a lack of complaints will have a bearing on unilateral ASA decisions in the future. It would make sense that it should be considered a mitigating factor, taken into account in addition to the application of the CAP and BCAP codes.

Nevertheless, clearly ensuring that all advertising is carried out in accordance with the CAP and BCAP Codes is of vital importance to the ASA, and as the arbiter of whether adverts have successfully achieved that, it makes sense that the ASA takes the lead where the public does not. Which means we can expect more unilateral decisions on major campaigns by the ASA, like this one, in the future.

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