“Protecting young and vulnerable people” - ASA publishes its 2020 Annual Report

United Kingdom

As the ASA and CAP this week released their Annual Report for 2020, we round up the key points from a uniquely challenging year.

Covid challenges

Unsurprisingly, and despite the focus of the report being on protecting young and vulnerable people, the Covid-19 pandemic is a pervasive theme of the Report.

The direct impact of the pandemic was evident in the increase of harmful Covid-19 health related ads, ranging from immunity-boosting vitamin injections and preventative IV-drips, to misleading claims about the protective qualities of face masks. Through a newly established Quick Report form, the ASA processed and dealt with 1,084 Covid-19 related reports across the year.

The impact of the pandemic was also felt in more indirect and nuanced ways. The ASA responded to  heightened sensitivity exacerbated by the effects of lockdown, for example by enforcing against ads for deferred payment (or buy-now pay-later) services which irresponsibly encouraged the use of credit on the basis that shopping would “lift the mood” of consumers. The ASA also ruled against advertisers targeting consumers worried about weight gain during lockdown and promoting the use of injectable prescription-only medicines for weight loss, including by Instagram influencers, while CAP issued a joint statement with the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency on the same issue.

Other highlights

Other key highlights of the Report include:

Increased reliance on technology-based monitoring, and the role of data science in bringing about more proactive tech-assisted enforcement

The ASA continues to expand its reach by use of data science and technology, through use of Natural Language Processing and a computer vision model to predict whether online ads are scams. It has also partnered with online platforms to launch Scam Ad Alert which enables quick and easy reporting of scams to the ASA. Over 1,100 reports have been submitted, and over 100 Scam Ad Alerts sent, since its June 2020 launch.

Continued focus on enforcing social media ad labelling rules

The ASA continued to take aim at social media influencers who fail to comply with their ad labelling requirements. Common issues included: inconsistent disclosure across different platform features (i.e. labels on posts but not on Stories), failure to consistently label ad content across consecutive Stories, and lack of visibility in labelling (i.e. labels often in a small font, obscured or difficult to spot).

Commitment to preventing harmful racial and ethnic stereotypes in advertising

In light of 2020's global focus on issues of racial inequality, the ASA undertook a significant review of its past decisions touching on race and ethnicity and commenced a major programme of work exploring racial and ethnic stereotypes, with further public research and a literature review planned in 2021.

Launch of 'Climate Change and the Environment' project

The ASA launched a project aimed at acting against “greenwashing”, the practice of making misleading claims about environmental credentials of a product without sufficient evidence to support the claim. The Competition and Markets Authority has launched its own investigation into environmental claims, and the European Commission has launched a consultation which may result in legislation, so advertisers should expect significant change in this area in the short-to-medium term.

New monitoring tools to prevent restricted ads being served to children online

Through use of avatar monitoring which mimics children's and teens' user profiles, CAP worked to target the advertising of restricted products such as gambling, alcohol and HFSS (High Fat Salt & Sugar) foods to children, and to scale up its data collection on the ads being served to younger users in online spaces. The ASA launched a project using “CCTV-style” monitoring to capture age-restricted ads (HFSS, alcohol, gambling, e-cigarettes and weight loss) on websites and YouTube channels attracting a disproportionately high child audience.

Facts and figures

36,491 problem ads amended or withdrawn, an increase of 346% on 2019 (driven by ASA's increased use of innovation and technology to find offending ads).

722,376 pieces of advice and training delivered to businesses by CAP.

Net Zero, ASA's commitment to become carbon net zero by 2030.

Television complaints increased by 43%, but only made up 1/5 of all cases.

Complaints about outdoor ads decreased by 56%.

Online complaints increased by 4% and made up almost 1/2 of all complaints.

Complaints about influencer posts decreased by 8%, but still made up almost 1/4 of online cases.