Are Czech ads going too far?

12-03-2008

A recent ruling by the Czech Advertising Standards Authority has stated that a billboard advert for an energy drink featuring a picture of a sleeping foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg is unethical. This represents one in a series of similar rulings by the authority. So is the regulation of advertising in the Czech Republic going too far or not far enough?

Post-communist countries often have a guttural reaction towards meaningful oversight, particularly of the media, and echoes of communist-era control still ring loud in the in the Czech Republic. Thus, the country’s democratic-era broadcast watchdog can impose fines, but the television stations can simply avoid paying them. And the country’s Advertising Standards Authority can make rulings in the form of recommendations – but ultimately they too lack the teeth to impose fines or to restrict adverts deemed offensive or inappropriate.

The most recent case in which the Advertising Standards Authority tried to flex its muscles is a poster advert featuring a photograph of a seemingly snoozing foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg. The poster claims that its energy drink will help you to “last longer!” – the problem is that the company behind the ad didn’t ask for the Minister’s permission to use the picture. Somewhat comically, a spokesperson for Mr. Schwarzenberg insisted that the minister was not sleeping in the picture, but merely thinking. Nonetheless, the Advertising Standards Agency has ruled that the poster is in breach of its ethical codex and has asked for it to be withdrawn. The company involved states that is considering taking down the ad, but no firm mandate exists to force its removal. I asked Czech Advertising Authority President Radek Pokorný whether he was happy with the current powers of his organization.

“Our influence is just informal. But we have a 99% compliance in terms of our decisions being accepted by the market, because all the important media or companies or agencies are panel members. There are about 20-25 verdicts a year, which are accepted by the market. At this moment, I am happy with our powers, because we don’t need higher powers, or some powers which would be under state control. So we are happy with our situation.”

Established in 1994, the Czech Advertising Standards Authority functions as a non-governmental organization which comprises members from a large scope of marketing and media-related businesses – from McDonalds to Television Nova; from Czech Public Radio to the Pilsner Brewing Company. The organization issues a voluntary codex for companies to subscribe to. I asked Mr. Pokorný what the specific justifications were in the Schwarzenberg ruling.

“It is true that this case is extraordinary because of the intentional misusing of the body or face of a member of the government. But it is not unusual in the manner in which regulations are breached.”

Based on the prior record of this organization, it seems likely that the seemingly inappropriate poster campaign will ultimately be withdrawn. But equally likely is the fact that one day, a real standoff will take place between advertisers and the Advertising Standards Authority - one which will test its limited powers and inability to issue financial penalties for gross violations. Yet in a country where political parties are often the most egregious violators - issuing tasteless or slanderous poster campaigns, that time might still be far over the horizon.

12-03-2008