- Interview with Oliver Gray
Linda Scott, editor of Advertising & Society Review, interviewed Oliver Gray, Director General of the European Advertising Standards Alliance, at their headquarters in Brussels on March 12, 2012.
Oliver, I think it would be helpful to begin by telling about the origins of the European Advertising Standards Alliance (EASA).
The ad industry has always held the view that self-regulation was better suited in the sector to deal with applying detailed rules in areas where societal, cultural, and technological change are so rapid and can be locally diverse. Before 1992, there was a sort of committee that brought together representatives from about 11 self-regulatory bodies in about nine countries. It was very, very informal—people got together over lunch on the side of other meetings.
And of course what happened in 1992 was the Single Market came into being in Europe. People were looking at cross-border selling and services and shopping. The idea from the European Commission was that there would be this great explosion in commercial communications. Consumers would be buying goods and services from other countries and therefore would need an ability to be able to complain, so you couldn’t just have national regimes. So the concept of the European Advertising Standards Alliance was really born from partly this idea. The other side of it was the sharing of regulatory best practices being discussed at these meetings.
The industry got the ball rolling when Sir Leon Brittan, who was then Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner for competition policy, challenged the advertising industry to organize itself to deal with cross-border complaints, as well as to ensure high advertising standards not only in the nine countries, but to ensure that across the whole region.
I was hired in 1993, so, near enough from the beginning. There were some countries that were instrumental in making sure that happened: the UK, Germany, Ireland, Italy, France, Belgium, and The Netherlands. They were all there at the beginning. And it went beyond just the European Union as such. Switzerland was also part of the system in place. I think the biggest challenge that we had was getting people to work together and to understand what was best practice, how did things work. And in the Single Market, you know, the early days of 1992, we had European directives coming at us across the table at quite a fast speed. And it was also the end of the days of the discussion about tobacco advertising, which I think was fundamental in changing the mantra at that time, which was, it’s legal to sell, therefore it should be legal to advertise.
And, you know, we still have that as a backdrop to what we do, but I think the biggest change that you can see from those days to nowadays is that we talk very much about responsible commercial communications. We should be free to do things, but we get freedom within responsibility. One of the biggest challenges then was whether we really did have self-regulation in all the different countries that were then considered the Common Market and then became the European Union.
And that’s been an ever-expanding challenge because, literally, within a couple of years you had the Berlin Wall fall, and you had new countries coming in. All of a sudden our challenge expanded by ten extra countries who were asking for help. You were faced then with quite a different type of challenge: a changeover from a command economy to a more mature economy. Well, it all started to happen, but until you got some sort of stability, it was quite difficult to get concepts like self-regulation going. And did people understand what it meant? It was not censorship; it was responsibility. The first kneejerk reaction we got in many of those markets was that people just wanted freedom, and they wanted to do, you know, whatever. But then they were bringing in the European directives to those countries and they realized they needed to embrace a particular model. That’s where we came...