“It’s not offensive.” That was the overwhelming response to our poll on the large poster for Abercrombie and Fitch which was recently displayed on a building in Orchard Road, Singapore’s main shopping thoroughfare. It showed a tasteful shot of a man naked to his lower torso, the rest hidden by a pair of jeans. However, it got the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS), the ad industry’s watch dog jumping up and down.

Moves are now afoot to tighten up on approvals of posters. Coincidently, medical ads are also going to have to toe the line. The Ministry of Health is beginning its first review since 2004. Certain words will no longer be permitted. For example, phrases like “state of the art technology” or “best medical care available” are likely to be banned. This review comes despite a slight drop from 155 complaints about health ads last year to 124 this year.

The Health Promotion Board has been in discussions with the ad trade associations and media owners in Singapore with plans to restrict certain product advertising aimed at children that appears on TV.

The ad industries in developed markets already subscribe to the notion that ads have to be truthful and avoid offense. By and large this self-regulation works.

But in my opinion, this worry about ads in traditional media is all a bit old hat. We now have radical changes in media enabling companies and complete strangers to monitor our social and buying habits. A whole new set of rules for the digital media will have to be implemented. Policing this will be difficult.

SMS messages reach us on the move while mobile phone and computer technology enables marketers (as well as governments and criminals) to spy on us as we go through our daily activities. Privacy laws are being passed in the States but it will be difficult to prevent unscrupulous marketers reaching us on the screen in our pocket or popping up on our PC.

We in the advertising industry can be sorely tempted with the power we now have to target selected groups, or even individuals in specific geographic locations. The huge databases now being compiled and mined are seductive to marketers.

Buy an Android phone and information is shared between it and Google. Our Facebook biography and social activities are linked to the search engine. Shared passwords increase the danger of criminals accessing email addresses. Information on each of us is already legally being sold on.

Ads in the traditional media are quite transparent. We grow up recognising them as commercial messages. The line is often blurred in the digital media. Blogs are often paid sales pitches. Quizzes with prizes can ease the unsuspecting player into paying heavy phone charges. Confidential information is casually extracted when filling in requested details. Remember, advertisements on the web do not go through a body like ASAS or the copy vetting department of a large TV station.

Buyers have to beware and we, as an industry, have to behave responsibly and not abuse this new power. It affects us personally: our wives, children and parents are all part of the marketplace.

In my view, no amount of legislation can fully protect any of us. Use your common sense. Be alert even when online at 1am and never reveal or publish anything that you would not want your grandmother or employer to know.

By the way, I think my grandmother would have enjoyed looking at the hunk on the Orchard Road poster.

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