Advertising watchdog reports soar in complaints since online remit was widened

Out-Law News | 06 Sep 2011 | 9:35 am | 2 min. read

The UK's advertising watchdog has received a surge in the number of complaints it has had to investigate since it was given oversight of digital marketing regulation, it has said.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) told Out-Law.com that it had received between 30 and 40% more complaints about adverts since its digital marketing remit was expanded to include social networking sites and company websites.

"The extension of the ASA’s online remit to companies’ own marketing communications on their own websites has increased our workload significantly," an ASA statement said.

"Complaint levels have risen beyond what we forecast and we have had to look at new ways of doing things so that we remain effective and efficient in responding to concerns about ads. But we welcome the response our remit extension has prompted; it clearly demonstrates that there was a regulatory gap online for both consumers and business. By recommending that the CAP Code should be extended, industry has helped to promote consumer trust and maintain a level-playing field online," the statement said.

ASA oversees compliance with the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) Code. The Codes set out rules on advertising, including prohibiting ads that are misleading or make unsubstantiated claims.

In March the CAP Code was changed, expanding the number of mediums in which ads would be subject to the Code's rules. The changes mean that ads that appear on company websites and social networking accounts must comply with the Code.

Under the revised Cap Code "advertisements and other marketing communications by or from companies, organisations or sole traders on their own websites, or in other non-paid-for space online under their control, that are directly connected with the supply or transfer of goods, services, opportunities and gifts, or which consist of direct solicitations of donations as part of their own fund-raising activities" are now subject to the CAP Code rules.

The term "non-paid-for space online under [the advertiser's] control" covers advertisements and other marketing communications on advertiser-controlled pages on social networking websites.

Previously the CAP Code had applied to ads in print, on posters and in emails, text messages and in paid-for-space, such as banner and pop-up ads or keyword advertising on search engines.

The ASA had previously said that it had received 4,500 complaints about marketing material between 2008 and March this year that were not subject to the CAP Code rules but which would have been investigated under its widened remit.

ASA said it was still collating data on the precise number and nature of complaints it had received since the CAP Code changes in March came into effect, but that it hoped to issue a detailed report on how the changes have impacted on its operations before the end of the month.

In 2009 ASA dealt with nearly 29,000 complaints and almost 2,400 ads were changed or withdrawn as a result of ASA action. ASA can 'name and shame' advertisers and ask media owners not to feature ads that breach the CAP Code. ASA can refer advertisers that persistently break the Code to the Office of Fair Trading which has the power to initiate legal proceedings against companies in breach of UK consumer protection laws.