New Advertising Strategy: Get the Competition’s Ads Pulled

We recently told you about the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) pulling a clever Soda Stream ad for allegedly “denigrating” the competition (i.e. Coke and Pepsi) even though neither company’s products appeared in the commercial. This over-reaction demonstrates a larger trend in Brittan’s advertising world — the ASA now fields a record number of complaints about ads, and the complaints just keep rolling in.

Did commercials become more offensive all of a sudden? Or is this less an issue of individuals being offended by ads than of organizations using complaints to further their own causes and companies trying to squash competitors by getting their ads pulled? (Hint: it’s the latter.)

In 2011, the ASA processed a record-breaking 31,000 complaints–but the 2012 total looks to be even higher. A spokeswoman from ASA told AdAge that, while the group hasn’t done any research into why complaints are suddenly on the rise, it has done a good job of publicizing the work it does.

Brinsley Dresden, a partner at law firm Lewis Silkin, says that advocacy groups and charity organizations have been using the ASA as a bargaining and PR tool more and more frequently. “If a group can spot an ad [that speaks to its agenda], it gives them an opportunity for PR.”

And it isn’t just advocacy groups using the system to their advantage. Competing companies increasingly hurl complaints back and forth in an apparent effort to keep one another’s messages from reaching the public. In fact, Richard Warren, co-CEO at London’s DLKW Lowe, estimated that 90% of ASA complaints come from competitors. Did you catch that? 90 percent! This practice has become largely controversial because while the ASA reveals complainants’ identities to advertisers asked to defend their work, companies will often recruit people unaffiliated with their organizations to do the complaining for them, thereby hiding behind the facade of genuine, offended citizens.

In order to deal with this sort of back-door process, the ASA implemented a new procedure just this month: ask the complainant to prove that he or she tried to resolve the problem directly with the company before bringing the case to the ASA. This has led to a 46 percent decrease in competitor complaints. It has not, however, completely fixed the problem. An anonymous ad agency exec from London said, “it’s now standard practice that if a campaign is out, there will be a complaint.”

Suddenly, we sort of get why people don’t always seem to think too highly of PR folk. The competition put out a good campaign, so rather than using creativity and careful research to trump them with an even better one, let’s just lob complaints at the ASA until their ad gets pulled. If ad folks always acted this way, Mad Men would get very boring, very fast.