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The responsibility to make brands safe

As Martin Lewis sues Facebook and the Lords call for online advertising to be investigated by the CMA, Thinkbox’s Matt Hill looks at the measures broadcasters take to protect viewers and advertisers.

In my first proper London telly job, I worked in the research team for a company called Flextech TV, home to Living, Bravo, Trouble and Challenge. As you would expect for a department that should sit at the heart of every business, the research team resided in the basement. 

After a few days in this new role, my eyes adjusted to the darkness and I realised that there was a whole other department down there with us. It was a team called Compliance and they had the best job in the whole world: they got to watch telly all day.  

There were half a dozen people and they spent their days watching episodes of CSI, Fresh Prince, Dog the Bounty Hunter, Takeshi’s Castle and so much more. Why? To make sure the shows complied with the UK Broadcasting Code and that viewers were protected (and that we weren’t going to get slapped wrists, receive huge fines, or – worst – be pulled off air). Today, similar teams operate across the 300+ TV channels now available in the UK.

Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code is a 155-page document that provides clear guidance on what can and can’t be broadcast on UK television. It protects children from harmful content and has strict rules governing everything from the special impartiality requirements that must be applied at the time of elections and referendums to rules that ensure programmes avoid “unjust or unfair treatment” of individuals or organisations.

After they’ve watched a programme, Compliance teams make notes and, alongside the core part of their day job (protecting viewers), they also flag content that may not be appropriate environments for certain advertisers – for example, advertisers that might be unsuitable for children or the audiences of religious programmes, or for broadcast around sensitive programming or news items.

There are many reasons why TV is the brand safest environment, not least because its shows are professionally produced and curated. But the fact that everything broadcast is scrutinised by a person trained in compliance beforehand is also central to this safety.

And it’s not just the shows that are watched and checked before they can be broadcast, the ads go through the same rigour. The majority of broadcasters (accounting for 99% of all TV advertising) jointly fund the industry body Clearcast to pre-vet TV ads. All ads that appear on their channels and platforms are viewed and checked by a dedicated body for compliance against the BCAP Code.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t purely an altruistic gesture from the broadcasters to ensure the British public is safe from false claims and scams. Of course, they do care about that, but as the broadcasters are regulated, they’re liable. They must take responsibility for all the content their platforms host. Their skin is in the game, and that is an effective incentive.

So, if they broadcast an ad that features, let’s say, the face of money expert Martin Lewis in an ad that promises to make viewers millions from Bitcoin investments but which turns out later to have nothing to do with Martin Lewis, then the broadcasters take the legal kicking. They can’t just promise to learn from their mistake and remove the illegal ad, by which time any damage will have been done anyway. They are doing hard yards upstream to stop things like that happening in the first place.

It is not a giant leap of imagination to draw a line between a lack of adequate internet regulation and the high-profile transgressions of social, ethical and legal norms by some internet companies in recent years. It is surely in the public interest to want greater oversight to help prevent future transgressions. It works for TV and other media after all. Despite the damage to some tech companies’ reputations little damage has been done to their bottom lines, so perhaps there is little incentive for them to change. It is in this light that we should all welcome the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications’ recent recommendation that the Competition and Markets Authority should investigate the online advertising market to ensure it is working fairly for consumers and other businesses.

Two years ago, I wouldn’t have even thought about writing this article. This is after all a topic that generally lives in the basement with the other service-based business functions.  However, I think it is increasingly obvious that, just as insight should belong at the heart (and middle floor) of the business, so should responsibility.

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