Advertising Standards Authority chief executive Guy Parker prefers to keep investigations to a minimum but the proliferation of advertising on company websites is a concern, he tells Ronan Hegarty

It's almost a case of poacher turned gamekeeper.

At the start of his career Advertising Standards Authority chief executive Guy Parker dabbled in advertising doing work experience at a number of London ad agencies before deciding the Mad Men life wasn't for him and joining their regulator.

The move turned out to be good news for him - if not always the advertisers.

Last June, after 17 years at the ASA, Parker became its youngest chief executive, at 39, just as the organisation was hit by a massive fall in funding as companies slashed their advertising spend (advertisers traditionally pay a voluntary 0.1% levy on bought space and 0.2% on some direct mail).

That hasn't stopped it processing almost 30,000 complaints in the past year, including those about Kellogg's TV runaway trolley ad, which made it into 2009's top 10 most-complained about ads. Other than that, food and drink brands have done pretty well, says Parker in a rare interview.

Although "big companies will look to push boundaries, on the whole food and drink companies are generally well behaved".

He cites the ASA's recent compliance report, which showed that of the 1,110 food and drink ads assessed across all media types, only seven were in breach of codes and none contravened the new children's food ad rules, leading to the industry's highest-ever compliance rate. Just this week a similar study of alcohol brands revealed 99.7% compliance.

But, he warns, grocery remains the fourth-most complained about sector, so there's no room for complacency.

Tough regulations around health claims, in particular, regularly trip up some of the biggest operators, he says. Danone famously fell out with the authority over health claims last October after claiming its Actimel yoghurt drink was "scientifically proven to help support your kids' defences" a claim the ASA ruled was misleading. "I felt sorry for Danone," says Parker. "The evidence it provided did not fall very far short but ultimately it did."

The new EU Nutrition and Health Claims Regulations, which will establish once and for all what claims can and can't be made for a whole host of products, should make the ASA's job easier if they ever escape the bureaucracy of the European Food Safety Authority. By examining the thousands of claims in small batches, EFSA will take years to complete this task.

"It's a painfully slow process and the backlog of claims is huge," says Parker. "More importantly, because the claims are basically approved by a bunch of scientists, it's not always easy for advertisers to phrase their health claims in a language consumers will understand. Sensible decisions need to be taken to allow manufacturers to give clear consumer information. The danger in making this process too difficult or technical is that it's counterproductive and actually dissuades producers from investing in healthier NPD."

Judgments like the Danone case thrust the ASA into the spotlight, but a good 50% of its time is taken up trying to avoid it. "We really want to make it easy for companies to be able to comply with the rules," claims Parker. "We helped advise about 47,000 advertisers last year."

In most cases it responded to calls for help in 24 hours. Not bad going considering the ASA has just 90 staff 45 of whom give advice while the other 45 handle investigations.

There is a yawning gap in the ASA's investigative remit, however. It can't run the rule over companies' own websites, something the Committee of Advertising Practice is looking at addressing in the next few weeks.

It needs to, says Parker. "Consumers want it, the government wants it and, importantly, the industry wants it."

Two thousand complaints against these websites went unanswered last year because the ASA lacks the legal power to investigate. But how that extra activity might be funded is something he refuses to be drawn on.

"If these sites are generating more complaints, there should be someone to investigate," he reasons.

On the whole, Parker tries to keep investigations to a minimum which often leads to accusations of the authority being toothless. When a complaint is upheld, the most-used sanction is the banning of an ad albeit often long after a campaign has run its course. "Most companies don't like being criticised in public and are unlikely to want it to happen again. It's a good deterrent," insists Parker.

Confrontation with the ASA and the publicity it generates is sometimes precisely what they seek, of course. Parker cites high-profile examples, such as Benetton and FCUK. "But companies need to be very careful about taking this approach. I'm not sure it does them much good in the long term. Where is Benetton now?"

Parker says the authority is getting the balance between advice and enforcement about right. Last year, the number of complaints received by the ASA went up 9.6%, but the number of individual ads complained about has fallen by more than 10% in the past two years. So could the ASA's role ever become obsolete?

"I don't think so," says Parker. "There is a clear decline in the trust that consumers have for marketers and marketing in the UK. The next Benetton could be just around the corner."

Misses – and a hit
- Tesco was rapped for implying all in-store bakeries made bread from scratch - they didn't
- Kellogg's was told "wholesome" claim for sugary Nutri-Grain Soft Oaties was misleading
- Coca-Cola's Glaceau Vitamin-water claimed it was as good as fruit and veg the ASA disagreed
- Parker's all-time favourite ad is the Honda "Cog" from 2002, which uses vehicle parts to create a mesmeric domino effect. His favourite food and drink ad was the short-lived Blackcurrant Tango commercial featuring an executive in purple boxer shorts striding to Dover