Self Regulation – Maintaining High Standards in the Industry

Published on: 6 March 2019

Celebrating 100 years of consumer healthcare spotlight header image

“…in advertising, they [manufacturers] owe a duty to the public and their fellow members, that is to say, that advertisements should be of such a character that they do not mislead the public nor contain statements which would permit criticisms to be levelled at proprietary medicines as a whole or which may cause confidence in proprietary medicines to become impaired”. [PAGB Code of Standards of Advertising Practice, 1936]

Nikki Kennedy

Colleagues at PAGB today still remember when copy was received and returned by fax – and actually stamped. With a stamp. Even that would have seemed like an ultra-modern system to PAGB’s founders who advised Members of approved or rejected materials by His Majesty’s postal service.

When the Association of Manufacturers of British Proprietaries (as it was then known) first started assessing advertising copy in 1919 it was checking that companies entering into membership met its strict membership criteria. In fact, out of dozens of interested companies, just 15 were deemed suitable to admit as founding members.

From the beginning the focus was on quality of membership not quantity and the committee wasn’t afraid of rejecting companies to maintain its high standards. In September 1919 Proust and Harsant was the first company to be formally rejected from membership because its advertising didn’t come up to scratch. Bates & Co was also pulled up on its promotion: our archives show that the company was required to delete “recommended for cancerous and scrofulous wounds” from its advertising before it was eligible for membership.

Later, in 1924, the Association changed its rules so all new materials had to be submitted for review (not just those existing at the time of membership application).

A watchful eye on the wider industry

Member companies began raising concerns that the Association’s strict advertising regulation put them at a disadvantage to non-member competitors who continued to make outlandish claims. Weaker organisations may have buckled under pressure from the membership but the Association’s directors remained convinced that by demonstrating its commitment to responsible advertising the industry’s reputation, indeed its future, would be secure. Instead of relaxing its own rules, the Board wrote to the press to explain the Association’s aims and objectives, which prompted publishers to begin consulting them for advice about non-member advertising materials. It even led to assurances from some newspapers that they wouldn’t accept certain ads.

Bolstered by this positive response, the Association introduced proactive monitoring of non-members advertising into its remit and raised objections with ad carriers where necessary. In 1927, the Proprietary Association of Great Britain (as it had now become) became a member of the Advertising Association (AA), further deepening its relationship with advertising bodies. When the AA adopted the PAGB Code in 1939, members could feel confident that the principles of the PAGB Code were now being upheld against non-members’ advertising too.

Changing with the times

The revision and publication of PAGB’s advertising rules into the world’s first advertising self-regulatory code in 1936 was a major milestone for PAGB, and for advertising (you can read more about it on our website here) but it is just one of many such milestones in our 100 year history. In fact, the PAGB Codes, while remaining true to the very first rules established under the stewardship of our first chairman, William Harrison Woodward, have been through many changes over the century. Their history is tied to the evolution of advertising and technology; as PAGB’s members have embraced new forms of advertising, so PAGB has worked hard to ensure our Codes are fit for purpose.

By 1947, advertising approvals made up the bulk of PAGB’s workload. Post-war it became apparent that PAGB needed to make its advertising approval system more robust to safeguard its self-regulatory role. An advisory panel was appointed comprising an independent chairman (James Milner MP), a doctor (Dr Ross Lynch) a pharmacologist and two industry representatives. All consumer advertising containing medicinal claims would be pre-vetted and the panel would review member and non-member copy where the claims were doubtful.

The fact that the panel was dissolved just eight years later was testament to the successful running of the Code and the volume of copy coming in. Without the panel, PAGB’s secretariat could now pre-vet advertising more quickly for its members. It was replaced with two medical consultants to provide advice when necessary. Today, PAGB still takes advice from medical and scientific advisors to support its advertising and regulatory work.

Examples of early advertising in our archives include children’s story pamphlets, newspaper and magazine ads but a revolution in advertising media was on its way first with commercial radio and then TV. The launch of commercial television (ITV,1955) was warmly welcomed by PAGB Members.

“Careful consideration has been given to the development of commercial television as a new medium for advertising, but it was decided that no special activity was called for on the part of the industry”. [PAGB Annual Report 1954-55]

However, the impact soon became apparent – by the end of the 1950s half of the secretariat’s time was devoted to advertising approval.

The expanding landscape of self-regulation

In 1961, led by the Advertising Association, industry came together to form the Committee of Advertising Practice, on which PAGB still sits. The following year brought the creation of the Advertising Standards Authority – introducing self-regulation to sectors that would not have had the same historical familiarity to it as our members did. PAGB published several revisions to its advertising Codes to keep pace with the changes of the decade, including, of course, The Medicines Act (1968). One of PAGB’s key roles is to help members navigate beyond the black letter law or specific Code rules, what our predecessors referred to as the ‘twilight’ areas of advertising self-regulation. In this decade, PAGB produced the first in a series of additional guidelines, including for laxatives and vitamin preparations. Half a century later, PAGB Members and Associate Members can access a wide range of additional guidance online, and the copy clearance team regularly provides advice to companies on interpretation of the rules making sure that ‘twilight’ can be safely navigated.

Bringing the Codes up to date

New versions of the code in 1996 and 1998 reflected new European Directives and for the first time introduced internet advertising into remit. Now digital marketing has become mainstream, it’s inevitable that the nature and volume of PAGB’s copy clearance work has changed.

Today, with over 10,000 pieces of copy submitted a year (2018) and a significant proportion of them for broadcast or digital audience, we ‘stamp’ copy with a digital stamp. Imagine trying to approve a website or schedule of chat messages with an ink pad and rubber stamp… Things have moved on in the way we save advice and search for precedent too. A case database currently being developed will lead to even greater opportunities to check previous reviewer comments. Speed and responsiveness are becoming ever more important. PAGB is working with members to understand where we can and should be approving copy or where a system of managed self-regulation with checks and balances is the most effective and efficient model.

New remit, new codes, new ways of working

When the first Advertising Code of Practice was published in 1936, proprietary medicines were a loosely defined group of products available to purchase for self care. Since then, PAGB has been a leading player in major changes to medicines regulation including the introduction of P and GSL product categories, and the regulation of food supplements and medical devices. These categories were brought into membership in 1989 and 2014 respectively and PAGB’s copy clearance function adapted by developing advertising guidelines that recognise the specific nature of these products.

We continue to identify new opportunities and challenges in self-regulation. It’s what PAGB has always done and what we continue to do in the best interests of our Members and consumers. In 2019 PAGB launched a new advertising code, the Medical Devices Consumer Code and this year we’re working with our Members to update the Food Supplements Advertising Guideline. As in previous years, it’s this commitment to updating our Codes and guidance that means self-regulation continues to work. Changes to the way PAGB handles food supplements and medical devices copy show how PAGB’s advertising services have adapted to be an enabler of change rather than a barrier to it.

One thing that hasn’t changed – we continue to strive to support members to produce advertising that meets our industry’s high standards… just like in 1919.