Sunday, 2 February 2014

What should we learn from the Advertising Standards debacle?

I didn't cover Scottish Cycling's regressive, victim-blaming Niceway Code advertising campaign of last year at the time, partially because this is a London-focused blog and partially because many other bloggers gave it a good thrashing anyway (in fact it actually spawned new blogs and Twitter feeds that came into existence just to attack it), but mainly because it was the type of thing we get from time to time that goes away quickly, leaving the world no different for it ever having existed, so it didn't seem particularly worth while.

Four months after this dismal campaign ended, the affair came back in a new form. The wheels of the Advertising Standards Authority had turned slowly, and they had assessed the hundreds of complaints the Nice Way Code's dreadful adverts had generated. And they had decided to uphold one complaint (made by five separate people, apparently), with the effect that the absurd and dehumanising "Think Horse" commercial could not be broadcast again, despite the fact that Scottish Cycling had no intention of broadcasting it again, as the money for the campaign had run out long ago.

So a dreadful commercial was banned by the ASA. That's good. Except their reasons for banning it were crackers, based on ignorance of cycle safety, ignorance of accepted cycle training, and ignorance of the Highway Code, and, more worryingly still, showed ASA executing bizarre "mission creep", attempting to police the media according to their own completely arbitrary concepts of "Health and Safety", rather than sticking to their job of determining whether adverts are truthful or legal:
We considered that the scene featuring the cyclist on a road without wearing a helmet undermined the recommendations set out in the Highway Code. Furthermore, we were concerned that whilst the cyclist was more than 0.5 metres from the kerb, they appeared to be located more in the centre of the lane when the car behind overtook them and the car almost had to enter the right lane of traffic. Therefore, for those reasons we concluded the ad was socially irresponsible and likely to condone or encourage behaviour prejudicial to health and safety.
This set a terrible precedent, so suddenly cyclists were at the barricades again, this time defending Cycling Scotland's advert, with a massive campaign of emails, blogs and Tweets directed to getting the ASA to change their minds, that extended to MPs and attracted sympathetic comment even in the right-wing press.

The ASA's judgement was so obviously bonkers that it clearly could not stand, and it hardly lasted a day before they announced:
The ASA has withdrawn its formal ruling against a Cycling Scotland ad pending the outcome of an Independent Review. That followed a request from Cycling Scotland, in which it argued that the ASA’s criticism of the positioning of the cyclist was incorrect. The decision to withdraw was made by the ASA Chief Executive in light of a potential flaw in our ruling. Once the Independent Review process is complete we will publish our decision on our website.
This may or may not be the end of the matter. Roger Geffen of the CTC argues, with some justification, that
It would be wrong to start celebrating prematurely. 
It is noteworthy that the ASA’s announcement only references a "potential flaw" in their ruling on the cyclist’s road positioning, without mentioning their non-use of a helmet or other ‘protective equipment’. 
.....what if the ASA is looking to ‘save face’ by backing down on road-positioning, while sticking to their guns on helmets, citing the Highway Code Rule 59 in their defence? 
If we end up with the ASA imposing de facto censorship of helmet-free cycling on TV, that would be an appalling blow to the promotion of cycling as a safe, enjoyable, aspirational and (above all) perfectly normal way for people of all ages and backgrounds to get around for day-to-day journeys or for leisure.
Well it certainly would not be good. But I'd like to take a step back from all this agitation about one stupid and insulting advert.

For the initial crime was Cycling Scotland's anti-cycling Nice Way Code campaign. Just because they had one of their adverts struck down by people with even less idea of how to build a safe cycling culture than them did not make them into Good Guys worth in any way supporting or defending, and I'm not going to start doing that.

Furthermore, the whole furore around this just shows how far we are away from concentrating on what is important in building a safe cycling culture. That's physically building an environment where cycling works for anyone who wants to do it. Adverts and PR and image-making aren't actually all that important. They are a  side-show. Cycling in the Netherlands and Denmark does not work because everybody has the right attitudes, and cycling has the right image, it works because they have built the correct physical environment. The image is better there as well, yes, and attitudes are slightly different, but this follows from the engineering of the physical environment and the consequent democratisation of cycling. Britain at this particular historical period, however, has lost sight of her past engineering prowess, and since the 1980s has become obsessed with spin, advertising and image, thinking these more important, and this extends into the cycling world and is manifested in the attention given to this whole controversy. The energy directed into this would probably be better spent elsewhere: in campaigning for tangible change (as indeed LCC is doing with its Space for Cycling campaign).

Though I'm totally against the use of helmets for normal cycling, I've never discussed the subject here. Why? Because the whole subject generates more heat that it's worth. People can wear whatever they like. What I'm campaigning for is an environment so safe and so conducive to cycling that the suggestion that cyclists should normally wear helmets in that environment would be dismissed as absurd by any average person, as it is in the Netherlands. Just as the suggestion that people walking should normally wear helmets would be dimissed as absurd by any average British person now. I consider that we will get to that point through campaigning for infrastructure change, not by talking about helmets.

So infrastructure change remains resolutely my focus. We'll get the right attitudes when we have enough people cycling, that it's no longer in any way a niche activity, and we'll get that when conditions are subjectively safe enough, guaranteed by concrete infrastructure, not by hopes of good behaviour. Then the attitudes that ASA demonstrated in their ruling against Think Horse, as well as the attitudes enshrined in the Niceway Code campaign itself, will be as generally unacceptable as racism and homophobia.

In the present environment though, the conclusions that ASA came to first, before they rowed back, are perfectly understandable. They are, in a sense, correct; ASA is, or was, merely reflecting common understanding of how the roads should work with respect to bikes and motor vehicles. Their ruling showed up various pieces of hypocrisy not of their making, and therefore it is wrong to blame them wholly for it.

I wrote before of The problem with assertive cyclingMy argument in that post was essentially that cycle training in the Bikeability sense embodies a lie, which puts cyclists "between a rock and a hard place". The lie exists in the fact that the government would never impose a statutory duty on motorists to overtake cyclists in the manner recommended by the Highway Code, and enforce that. Motorists would regard it as intolerable that they were held up by cyclists all the time, and always had to dawdle behind them, if they had to allocate them a whole lane, and change lane to overtake them.

The ASA were just interpreting practice on the road as they found it. We can shout and shout about how cyclists should be taking the primary position and motorists should have to change lane to overtake, but in the real world, most of the time, this does not and cannot happen. The road situation shown at 0:35 of Think Horse strikes me as hugely untypical: the width of the road, the lack of oncoming vehicles. the space available. The cyclist actually seems to have no reason to be riding so far from the kerb. It's not a realistic scenario, and has nothing to do with the problems I encounter every time I get on a bike in London, which are about how you get through without intimidation on multi-lane roads full of moving vehicles, or on parked-up residential streets that are effectively only one lane wide, and where nobody can overtake or pass anybody without squeezing through, and I'm not clear what anybody was ever supposed to learn from it. If they'd shown a realistic situation of conflict, where a motorist is forced to wait for a whole minute or two while a cyclist gets to the end of a road where safe overtaking is impossible, and told us what we are supposed to do there, that would have been different. But this is no help at all.

What's supposed to be going on here, and what is anyone supposed to learn from it?  0:35 from Think Horse
Someone in the ASA thought that this cyclist was in a funny position in the road (which, actually, they are) and thought it showed somebody doing something "socially irresponsible" (not that any car advert approved by ASA ever showed anyone doing anything socially irresponsible, of course). But this is just how most members of the public would probably regard it.

With the helmets issue, the problem lies more clearly with the Highway Code itself. This says cyclists should wear helmets. You and I know there is important distinction in the Code between places where it says should and places where it says must, but this will be lost on most people, and clearly was on the ASA adjudicators. There's a "common-sense" argument which could have run, in their minds: "The Highway Code says cyclists should wear helmets, therefore there must be some good reason for it to say that, therefore it must be unsafe and socially irresponsible of cyclists if they don't heed that advice, therefore we should ban this advert for that reason". There's a parallel here with the "not guilty" verdicts that juries often come up with in road death cases, that campaigners find deeply unacceptable. The actual purpose of juries is to take a "common-sense" view of the case, whatever that means, and in a car-oriented society, where the cyclist is regarded as a distinctly peculiar creature by most, and majority sympathy lies with the motorist, the result will be these miscarriages of justice that we see.

What's the real problem here? The problem is that the Highway Code mentions helmets at all, and uses this word should. The Highway Code should be clearer. It should be a set of rules that everyone must obey at all times on the public roads, punishable by law if they do not. It has no business getting into dubious behavioural recommendations, like helmets for cyclists, high-vis clothing for walkers or luminous leads for dogs. If Parliament wants those things to be law (which it does not), it should make them the law.  The Department for Transport should throw all the shoulds out of the Highway Code. Every one of the shoulds is just a way of transferring a little bit of blame on to those not responsible for road danger, but who suffer disproportionally from it. The shoulds, in their quasi-legal, quasi-rescriptive character,  just confuse the public, and ASA is merely reflecting that confusion. A great number of people, including me, would dispute that cyclists should wear helmets. There is a great raft of data and argument against it, so familiar, I am sure, to readers of this blog, that I will not go into it. I don't think it is particularly surprising that ASA are confused about this subject, which is not their speciality, when the DfT is so confused.

It's correct to point out, as CTC do in the link above, that ASA never try to enforce in advertising any of the other Highway Code shoulds, such as high-vis for pedestrains at night, and therefore they are clearly singling out cyclists for dicriminatory treatment. But clearly, also, there is no reason for all shoulds to be considered equal. It would probably appear as "common-sense" to the ASA adjudicators that clothing for pedestrains is just a matter of personal choice, but that there are serious safety issues invoved in the attire of anyone getting on a bicycle.

This is the sort of discrimination we have to combat, and, in the end, I suspect it will persist until we can normalise everyday utility cycling into British society. This can't happen until we get a massive re-engineering of our roads and streets such that it ceases to be the case that the only pleasant and practical way to use them is in a motor vehicle. I can't get too het up about the banning (or not) of one silly advert based on an argument between two sets of people, both of whom have regressive attitudes. Let's put the effort into getting real change of the streets. So often I hear people say, "We need to change the attitudes now, as it will take too long to get decent infrastructure in". Well, it only seems to take a long time to get decent infrastructure in because we never really start. Getting that start should be the focus of our efforts.


  1. Whilst I agree with the article on the whole, I don't think we should be pushing to have all the shoulds taken out of the HC. The law can't legislate for every event, that would make it far too prescriptive, however there still needs to be a means for the intent of the law to be conveyed to the public.

    Another way to look at it is that the HSE produces a lot of Approved Codes of Practice to try and tell people what best practice is and what they need to be doing to stay within the law. To not heed the advice of an ACOP is not illegal but in court you would need to provide a good reason why you didn't. This advice is all very useful and the country is made better for it. To my mind this is very much like the HC and there are many shoulds in the HC that I hope road users typically observe.

    Rather than getting rid of all the shoulds, a simple test would be "if a road user fails to observe this rule, should they have to explain why in court?" If the answer to that question is no then the rule needs amending/removing.

  2. I'm in sympathy with nearly everything here - only I want to quiz you about "Someone in the ASA thought that this cyclist was in a funny position in the road (which, actually, they are)". Partly, what you are saying is that this is how most people, who are in ignorance of DfT assertive cycling principles (Bikeability), will see things - and partly you are saying that the position is 'funny' in as much as CycleCraft & Bikeability describes the trained riding of only a small proportion of cyclists, and partly you are saying that there's a basic limitation and oddity in CycleCraft & Bikeability, as proposed solutions to the problem of cycling among motorised traffic, since most people don't want to cycle among cars and lorries anyway. I agree with all that, I think, if that's what you're saying - and I can agree with these comments on the limitations of Bikeability without planning on ditching any Bikeability techniques myself, any time soon. Critique of something as a route to mass cycling isn't to be confused with a complaint against it as roadcraft in the current environment.

    The tricky part is, there's a point here that's unclear. If you are saying that the pictured position is wrong *even on BikeAbility criteria* (and it's not clear that you are, but someone who doesn't cycle might read you that way) then I disagree. It's a wide wide road, and both primary and secondary position are relative to the moving traffic lane, not the simply the carriageway width. Quite a lot of what looks like road to the right of the picture is actually gutter in the full sense: steeply inclined, with no tarmac riding surface. Plus, the final sequence of the film reveals large potholes in the tarmac portion of the road, which the cyclist is keeping inside of. So while the position will look funny-peculiar to many and embodies something funny-peculiar about the ambitions of the vehicular-cycling philosophy, it's by no means perverse, or funny-ha-ha. You quite possibly weren't disagreeing on that point, but maybe this is a chance to clarify.

    It's probably where I'd be, on that road.

  3. What we should learn is that times have changed. Bodies like the ASA probably would have got away with this ban, un-noticed by anyone in particular, ten years ago. But riding a bicycle for transport is more popular, if not as actively practised as it could be, than they think. Modern communication methods allow the huge variety of people who ride bicycles to come together and make a fuss very quickly.

    The whole cycle-safety-helmets thing is, I'm sure, fuelled by the motor industry who fund the ASA and spend millions on advertising in newspapers and other media. The motor industry relies on making cycling seem dangerous, and on diverting attention away from the source of the danger: the products they need to sell to everyone. If they can make a small fortune selling expanded polystyrene hats at hugely inflated prices, that's a bonus.

    The motor industry would be nothing without all those hugely expensive and wildly misleading adverts. People would simply buy the most cost-effective car for their needs, or they'd not bother spending such a large chunk of their income on a car at all. The ASA is funded by advertisers via a levy: stopping motor adverts would severely dent their income.

  4. I disagree because:
    1. Culture IS important.
    If this sort of nonsense goes on, and nobody can produce any images of cycling without them wearing helmets - in any Council document, for example - then the idea that cycling always has to be helmeted if done by proper reasonable people gets into the cultural mainstream. And that will be true for cyclists whatever the road conditions are. Don't forget that helmet fanatics believe that the Dutch are asking for trouble by riding lidless, and that helmet advocacy is big in Denmark. Do you want a world where you couldn't publish a cycling strategy or invite people to a conference on cycling without being told that you couldn't have images of cyclists which were unlidded would be prohibited.
    2. Don't worry about apparently defending the dreadful Niceway Code by attacking the ASA ruling. It's just one of those paradoxes of campaigning. I don't think most of the vast number of people justifiably offended by the ASA are actually defending it.
    3. It takes up time when you would rather be doing something else. Yes, but that's often what campaigning is about.
    4. (Not a disagreement). The main issue in this episode is to change the HC with regard to cyclists being supposed to wear helmets. You are absolutely correct there.
    5. As David Robjant says above, there are issues about cyclists being in the vicinity of motorists who don't think they should slow down and overtake properly. I am regularly on roads like country lanes where there is never going to be a segregated cycle track, and I think motorists should do the right thing.

    Finally, there is an issue about the ASA which nobody has commented on so far, and that si their rule as an advertising industry created "regulator". for those of us concerned about safety on the road ane cars and their impact on health and the environment etc., this is very important.

    Robert Davis, RDRF

  5. What struck me as particularly dim-witted of the ASA in assessing this ad was not so much their arrogation of the right to determine policy in an area outside their competence (road safety for cyclists) but that they have so comprehensively missed the point of the advert itself.

    Niceway Code was a series of print and broadcast adverts aimed at various audiences, cyclist and motorist among them. Some of the ads were clearly aimed at both together, along the lines of “let’s all be nice to each other”, some were aimed specifically at cyclists, and some – including this one – were aimed specifically at motorists.

    Ponderous though it was, the message here was abundantly clear – cyclists are vulnerable road users and should therefore be treated with great caution and consideration. I suspect the copywriter must have been a country dweller – how often does a motorist have to avoid a horse on Sauciehall Street, for example – where I can attest that only the most ignorant and inconsiderate driver would pass a horse rider (travelling in the same or indeed the opposite direction) without an exaggerated slowing down and steering wide, if necessary waiting for the oncoming traffic to clear first.

    If that is the point you wish to make, then surely you would want to play up the perceived vulnerability of the cyclist by dressing her (it has to be her, to make the point plainer) in floaty dress and pink cardie and flowing flame-red hair – with absolutely no sign of the committed-cyclist garb of helmet or lycra. This ad is about the motorist, it is not about the cyclist. To suggest that the cyclist should have conformed more to the ASA stereotype would seriously detract from the message the ad was attempting, so clumsily, to convey.

    Mind you, if the ASA is the kettle here, CTC is definitely the pot when it takes issues with the adjudication. For interest, I went through my recently received copy of “Cycle” page by page, counting the images therein and sorting them according to portrayals of cyclists (single or groups) entirely helmeted, ditto entirely bare-headed, mixed but mainly helmeted, and mixed but mainly bare-headed.

    I found that in editorial photos, a significant majority of images were entirely helmeted, a reasonable minority entirely bare-headed, and almost none at all of mixed groups. In advertising images (most by number, if not by print area, being cycle tour operators) the bias was even more pronounced with very few images at all showing anyone not wearing a helmet. Arguably our principal national cycling association therefore promotes and reinforces the image of cyclists which the ASA has taken to be the norm. I wonder why?

  6. the cyclist was in a "funny position" on the road because right at the very end of the advert (unless you watched the clipped version on the BBC news article) shows a load of potholes between the rider and the kerb.

    The main issue I had with the ruling was the contradiction where the ASA applied offical advice and guidance regarding wearing of a helmet, and then ignored official guidance regarding road placement.

    The other issue is the ASA's lack of consistency regarding "social responsibility" Plenty of car and other adverts go though which are much less acceptable and much more fantastical than the Nicewaycode ad.

    The ASA definitely dropped a clanger on this one, and hopefully will withdraw it after recognising the shortsightedness and misguided attitude of their ruling.

    If they don't then time to start complaining about every car advert, every DIY ad without PPE and rub their faces so far in the dirt they can't breathe

  7. When I see marketing pictures happy families at centre parks on bikes looking like they are about to compete in a mountain bike race when in fact they are doing a 30 minute leisurely ride on managed paths that are better quality than the ones in our towns, off road in the woods, a bit of me dies.
    When I take my kids to Thetford forest for a walk and there are hundreds of MPVs with four or more bikes attached, who have driven from all over East Anglia so they can ride around in the only protected area available, another part of me dies.
    The situation in this country and other similar parts of the western world where car ownership is king is so depressing. It's a disaster for everyone, especially kids who will never know what it is to have freedom without paying an entry fee or a parking fee first.
    This ASA glitch is an expression, a symptom of what's already happened, nothing more. The highway code, the justice system and the entire transport network needs a massive kick up the jacksey. How did something, essentially so useful and in parts beautiful, as in the car, get turned into what we have today? it's a sledghammer to crack a nut.
    Without sensible legislation and intelligent, forward thinking we are where we are. NL did the sensible thing, I think having a Ministry of Environment and Infrastructure helps too, our Highways Agency vs Environment Agency is the biggest mistake most likely, mix the petrol heads and the hippies together, they can learn from each other.