The ASA and CAP publish 2019 Annual Report

United Kingdom

On 2 June 2020, the ASA and CAP published their Annual Report for 2019. The Report focuses on the ASA’s use of technology in new ways to strengthen its online regulation. In line with the ASA and CAP’s five-year strategy to deliver “More Impact Online”, the Report describes the ASA’s increasing use of technology to monitor problem ads quickly and at scale.

The Report also includes case studies discussing its increasing use of partnerships with other regulators and with industry bodies, and its educational role, and on its work protecting vulnerable people, with a focus on the new rules against harmful gender stereotypes.

As usual, the Report includes statistics on complaints received and adjudications made. These show that the ASA resolved 34,717 complaints about 24,886 ads; this was about 1,000 more complaints than last year, though in relation to slightly fewer ads. However, there was a very steep drop in the number of own-initiative compliance cases: the ASA resolved more than 27,000 such cases in 2018, but only 4,469 in 2019. There was also a significant fall in the number of ads being amended or withdrawn, which was down from 10,850 in 2018 to just 8,881 in 2019. This may however reflect the ASA’s efforts to rebalance its activity away from reactive complaints casework and towards collective regulation.

Other highlights include a 36% increase in the number of complaints in the Food and Drinks sector; a 13% reduction in the number of complaints received about the Retail sector; and that complaints about influencer advertising now make up more than a quarter of all complaints about online ads, highlighting the importance of making sure ads are obviously identifiable as such.  

Key statistics from 2019, include:

  • 34,717 complaints resolved about 24,886 ads.
  • 16,767 complaints were received about 14,775 online ads.
  • 9,971 complaints were received about 5,216 TV ads.
  • Complaints about influencer advertising made up more than ¼ of all online complaints – 4,401 complaints about 3,670 ads.
  • 4,469 own-initiative compliance cases resolved resulting in 8,881 ads being amended or withdrawn.
  • A review of Complaints and Cases by Sector: 36% increase in Food and Drink complaints; 13% decrease in Retail cases; 8% increase in Leisure complaints; and 18% decrease in Business cases.

Using Technology to Monitor Online Ads

  • The ASA made proactive use of avatar monitoring technology (mimicking the online profiles of internet users of different ages) to visit over 250 websites, 196,000 times.
  • They captured and reviewed 95,000 ads and took action against a number of problem ads to protect children.
  • The new social intelligence tool “Brandwatch” strategically monitors ad content online and provides observations such as gender presentation in ads and individual breaches of the advertising rules (e.g. unlabelled ads from individual influencers).
  • The Scam Ad Alert system quickly shares information about paid-for scam ads (e.g. fake celebrity stories and cryptocurrency scams).

Social Media Botox Advertising & Responsible Ads for Cosmetic Procedures

  • The ASA launched a sector-wide compliance project in partnership with the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency in respect of Botox posts on Instagram, working with over 25 trade bodies, regulators and pharmaceutical companies.
  • CAP’s Enforcement Notice on social media Botox advertising was sent to over 130,000 practitioners across the cosmetics services industry. An online ad to promote compliance with the Botox Enforcement Notice reached 1.39m people.
  • Over 12,000 irresponsible Instagram posts were removed in one quarter.
  • The ASA and CAP have committed to working with the cosmetics services industry to tackle harmful perceptions of body image and ensure that ads do not imply that aspirational lifestyles can only be achieved through cosmetic surgery.

SME Website-Only Ad Complaints

  • The ASA has adopted an “Education first” approach in relation to claims seen on the websites of SMEs.  Rather than instigating formal and lengthy investigations, the ASA is adopting a “lighter-touch” to educate SMEs in the first instance on irresponsible ads.
  • The ASA has been issuing Advice Notices to SME websites in relation to minor breaches of the advertising rules which detail why a particular ad is wrong and how it should be amended.
  • The ASA has observed a 34% reduction in the number of published rulings against SME website only ads. 

Tackling Misleading Reference Prices & Tax Avoidance Schemes

  • The ASA continues to focus on ensuring that the pricing information consumers rely on when making purchasing decisions is accurate.
  • The ASA continues to work with regulatory partners to improve pricing information given to consumers online.
  • The ASA has collaborated with the HMRC to crack down on illegitimate tax arrangements which entice vulnerable members of the public to enter these schemes. The ASA upheld three complaints brought by the HMRC relating to ads promoting various tax avoidance schemes, including an advertisement by Knight Wolffe Ltd promoting ways to “pay up to 80% tax… without breaking the law”, which was ruled to be a breach of the advertising rules as Knight Wolffe did not hold enough evidence to support their claims, and suggested that they were endorsed by HMRC.

Harmful Gender Stereotypes

  • New rules banning harmful gender stereotypes were introduced on 14 June 2019.
    • A complaint was upheld against Mondelez UK in relation to an advert depicting two “hapless” dad characters becoming distracted while caring for their infants.
    • A complaint was upheld against a major automotive manufacturer in respect of an ad juxtaposing images of men engaged in extraordinary activities with women who appeared passive or engaged in a care-giving role.

Vaping Ads on Instagram

  • The ASA ruled in December 2019 that e-cigarette ads posted from a public Instagram account breached the advertising rules (e-cigarette brands are now required to make their Instagram accounts private).
    • A complaint was brought against an ad posted by British American Tobacco UK Ltd which featured celebrities and models holding electronic cigarettes.

Gambling and Harmful TV Ads Seen by Children

  • New guidance on gambling and the protection of children and young people was introduced in April 2019. This guidance introduced a ban on animated characters, licensed characters from movies or TV and sportspeople and celebrities being used in gambling ads across all media.
  • The ASA continues to monitor children’s’ exposure to age-restricted TV ads for alcohol, gambling and HFSS products, with recent data suggesting that exposure to HFSS ads in particular continues to decline.

A year into the ASA’s “More Impact Online” strategy, the drop in the number of ads being amended or withdrawn, and the huge drop in own-initiative cases, suggests a significant shift in priorities. Given the proliferation of online advertising, the ASA needs to “do more with less” (or at least with largely static budgets), and the strategy of working proactively with other regulators and of taking a lighter touch to SME online-only ads may be ways to achieve that. However, there may also be concern that the ASA’s focus has shifted so sharply away from own-initiative enforcement, which seems likely to lead to fewer non-compliant ads being removed.

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