Advertising Standards Authority must clean up its act, says chemistry chief

20 April 2010

The chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) says the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) should clean up its act or risk losing credibility.

The ASA, claims Richard Pike, is compromising its role, having twice failed to rule logically on complaints of national importance made by the scientific community.

The latest mishandling of an issue was over the misleading portrayal of cooling towers in a national newspaper advertorial.

This followed an earlier case in which the ASA divorced itself from scientific reality in declaring that a TV advert for '100% chemical-free' Miracle Gro fertilizer was acceptable. 

Dr Pike said: "The ASA is pandering to what it mistakenly perceives to be the public understanding of important issues. Instead of acting upon sound, established facts it is making wrong assumptions about how the public thinks and what it believes.

"This is equivalent to overruling the science of astronomy in favour of astrology, or proven medical advice for homeopathy, so as not to confuse or upset the public. This is patronising and demeaning." 

"Next we will have Mystic Meg advising the Cabinet."

An advertising feature by E.on in The Daily Telegraph on 28 November 2009 carried a photograph of four cooling towers, claiming that clean coal technology will 'change the face of energy generation'. 

"The clear implication was that the landscape shown in the image would change in future, when this is actually false. Whether or not a clean-coal process is used, cooling towers will continue to be used as they are required to extract heat in the power generation cycle, through the evaporation of water at the base of the towers. It is only water vapour, and not smoke or carbon dioxide, that is emitted from the top of these. The RSC has noted with dismay in recent years, the way that news organisations and television programmes regularly suggest in pictures that cooling towers belch out carbon dioxide and smoke." 

The misleading picture and wording were challenged by a complainant to the ASA, drawing on evidence from the RSC which showed that in a survey only one person in a hundred really understood what cooling towers were used for, and therefore a large proportion of the population might easily have gained the wrong impression from the photograph and its caption. 

A similar complaint by the same individual over images used on television during a Panorama programme broadcast on 1 December 2008 had been upheld by the BBC Trust. 

In contrast, the ASA went against the scientific advice of its Independent Reviewer, and had concluded in its ruling on 24 March 2010 that 'most readers would interpret the image merely as a clearly recognisable motif for industry and power generation'.

This follows an earlier case involving Scott's Miracle Gro Organic Choice fertilizer, when the RSC complained to the ASA about a scientifically ridiculous advert run on television, where Scott's claimed their fertilizer was 100% chemical free - a claim which is demonstrably untrue, as all matter is composed of molecules. This complaint was rejected even after an appeal, with an independent adjudicator ruling that the advert was "unlikely to mislead the public".

The RSC responded to this by offering a 1 million prize for anyone who can place in Dr Pike's hands what he considers to be a 100% chemical free product. So far, none of the few applicants has been successful.

Dr Pike said that to embed scientific appreciation more widely in society, there has to be leadership from the top, to support education and training delivered by others at the grass roots. As an independent regulatory body, the ASA must demonstrate such scientific leadership, and not reinforce myths and misconceptions. 

"The BBC Trust clearly takes its responsibilities more seriously."

Related Links

Bank notes

1million bounty offered for UK's first chemical-free product

23 February 2010

Crack the impossible and claim the prize - but of course no such product could exist, says Dr Richard Pike

Power station

BBC's cooling tower smokescreen blown away by Trust ruling

20 October 2009

A complaint lodged by an RSC member last year has led to Panorama having its knuckles rapped by the BBC Trust for inaccurately portraying cooling towers.

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