Written evidence submitted by Dr Kristina Auxtova (MISS0024)


This evidence focuses specifically on the question “How successful is the ASA at protecting the public from adverts that have a negative impact on body image?

The recent study which has been published in the Journal of Business Ethics highlights evidence which explores the norms and procedures involved in the UK’s regulation of offensive and harmful advertising. Whilst this research was based on an archive of complaints triggered by advertising produced by the non-commercial (not-for-profit and public) sectors, and related to a broader set of issues of harm and offence rather than just body image, our findings on the processes and norms the ASA adopts in its regulatory practice apply to all the issues and complaints they handle as these norms and procedures govern the regulation of all UK advertising. Below, a summary of key findings and recommendations, as pertaining to the Inquiry into Body Image, is presented.

Key questions:

-          How does the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) govern advertising ethics with and on behalf of its members and stakeholders?

-          What norms and processes underpin the regulation of the allegedly offensive and harmful advertising in the UK?

Key findings:

-          There has been much more focus on making the system work for the advertising industry than for its other stakeholders (particularly the public audiences), which may contribute to the structural power imbalances.

-          Lack of voice, or access to participation, allowed to the complainants within the adjudication process that follows the submission of their complaint – relative to other key stakeholder groups (regulator and advertiser), the complainants are disempowered in the process.

-          Lack of clarity as to what ‘offensive’ or ‘harmful’ means within the codes, or what ‘serious’ or ‘widespread’ offence stand for. Lack of clarity as to what a ‘justifiable reason for offence, fear or distress means within the codes. This creates difficulties for advertisers in navigating the codes as well as for the regulator in applying them in a consistent manner.

-          Limited transparency of the adjudication process particularly in informal investigations as well as of the complaints themselves which leaves advertisers to their own interpretations and the complainants unsatisfied. Sharing the complaints would allow the advertisers to better understand the public’s concerns with issues such as body image.

-          The norms that guide the regulatory decision-making appear to be consequentialist, i.e. based on harm minimisation rather than harm elimination.

Key recommendations:

Given the findings and ASA’s role in protecting the public from offensive, harmful and misleading advertising, the structural power imbalance identified in this research needs to be addressed. We recommend the following actions to elevate the complainants from simply complaint-makers to participants in the investigation and the broader debate:

-          Granting greater levels of involvement to complainants and the wider public throughout the regulatory and investigative process. At a minimum, this requires allowing the complainants to provide support for their complaints and counterargue the advertisers’ justifications and evidence.

-          While advertisers have full compliance teams at their disposal, the complainants lack resources and/or competence to provide strong evidence or arguments. This can be remedied by introducing a model of representation which could be undertaken by organisations such as ‘The Citizens Advice Bureau’ or ‘Which?’.

-          Introducing an option to conduct primary audience research on the complained about ads to aid the Council’s decision-making (rather than rely on advertisers’ evidence, ASA executive’s recommendations, and Council members’ interpretations). Importantly, this should include vulnerable groups and those most likely negatively affected by the advertisement in question (e.g. those suffering from eating disorders in cases of advertisements trying to battle such disorders).

-          Including complainants and the wider public in the process of formulating and clarifying the normative principles and codes of conduct. Wider stakeholders are already often included in such research; however, these efforts could be strengthened by including complainants and specifically targeted groups of those most likely affected by the studied advertising issue

Other recommendations:

-          Key terms such as ‘offence’, ‘harm’, ‘serious’, ‘widespread’ and ‘justifiable reason’ should be clarified within the ASA’s codes. An explanation of how these terms are judged should be provided.

-          There is an argument for further increasing transparency within the complaint-handling processes – this could include making the informal investigations available similarly to the weekly published rulings resulting from formal investigations, as well as making the actual complaints and evidence submitted by advertisers publicly accessible.


Auxtova, K., Brennan, M. & Dunne, S. (2020). To be or not to be governed like that? Harmful and/or offensive advertising complaints in the United Kingdom’s (self-) regulatory context. Journal of Business Ethics. Available at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10551-020-04480-x (full text - open access)


Evidence submitted by:

Dr Kristina Auxtova

I am a Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Dundee. My research interests focus on advertising ethics and regulation, particularly as applied to the public and non-profit contexts. I am also interested in the broader questions of ethics in marketing and marketing's impact on society, social and charity marketing, consumer vulnerability, emotions in relation to marketing communications, advertising rhetoric, and the role of societal and cultural norms in consumption practices.

The reason I am submitting this evidence to support the Inquiry into Body Image is because of my expertise in the area of advertising regulation and because my research is very relevant to the Inquiry and thus could offer a valuable contribution. In addition, I would like to express interest in further supporting the Inquiry and any further policy-making efforts in this area by engaging in additional research and/or other activities specific to regulation of body image in advertising – please do not hesitate to contact me if I can be of any assistance.



June 2020