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Advertising watchdog will report record complaint figures following extension of its remit

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has said that it is set to report record annual complaints figures as a result of changes to its responsibilities earlier this year. It said that almost one third of complaints are now about online advertising falling under its extended remit.

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.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said 30% of the complaints it received between 1 March and 23 September this year had been to do with advertising on company websites and other non-paid-for space, such as on social networks. It said advertising about complementary and alternative health had been most complained about.

"Between 1 March and 23 September 2011, we received 5,531 complaints about 5,165 ads/campaigns (cases) under our new remit, out of a total of 18,369 complaints about 14,205 cases," the ASA said in a statement

"30% of complaints and 36% of cases in the period were under our new remit, putting us on course for record complaints and cases figures in 2011. 86% of the cases under the new remit related to misleading advertising claims (compared to 65% for all cases in 2010)," the statement said.

"The most complained-about sector is complementary and alternative health, in the main because of orchestrated complaint campaigns," it said. "Other than that, complaints have been very similar to those we receive about ads in other media, with concerns around pricing, availability and the performance of products in sectors like business, retail, leisure, computers and telecommunications and holidays and travel."

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 said that it had experienced an "influx" of complaints immediately after its remit was extended, causing a backlog of work for staff, but said the number of complaints had "declined somewhat since May".

"We’re encouraged that there’s clearly a public demand for our remit extension and are dealing effectively with the complaints," the ASA statement said.

"The online remit extension is a significant landmark for advertising self-regulation, helping ensure that all advertising is legal, decent, honest and truthful.  That’s good for consumers, but it’s good for responsible companies and organisations too: trusted advertising works better. The high complaint levels prove the public demand for our service.  But while it’s crucial that the ASA offers redress, we must be realistic: it will take time to tackle everyone’s concerns.  This first seven months is only the start," it said.

The ASA said it is raising awareness of CAP Code compliance among small and medium sized businesses and is "continuing to provide training for industry, updating our online resources as well as proactively monitoring websites and social media to assess compliance with the rules".

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