What's happened since the ASA extended its remit?

Back in February 2011, we discussed the Advertising Standards Authority’s plans to extend its remit to cover company websites and business content on social networks. Almost a year on, here’s another look at the legislation and how, if at all, it has affected the development and management of websites and online promotional material.

According to the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), which is supported by the ASA, it has been an active year all round since the extension of its remit to cover online content. While it’s clear that it was expecting a reasonable level of complaints and requests for investigations given the sheer volume of websites and social content it is now required to monitor, complaint levels were still substantially above forecast:

  • 30% of complaints (5,531 out of a total of 18,369) and 36% of cases fell under the new remit, leading to record figures for 2011
  • 86% of the cases related to misleading advertising claims (compared to 65% for all cases in 2010)

Some things don't change…

Despite predictions that regulation of websites would lead to complex adjudications and multiple warnings across the board, the ASA reports that, broadly speaking, complaints about online campaigns fall into the same categories as those offline – pricing, availability and performance of products in:

  • Retail
  • Leisure
  • Telecommunications
  • Travel

Key issues appear to be:

  • Omission of full costs – offering cheap flights, for example, without making it clear that there are substantial charges for ‘extras’ such as paying by debit card and baggage handling
  • Misleading information about availability – offending travel sites tend to headline very low-cost holidays which are only available within an extremely limited timeframe, making it highly unlikely that customers would be able to take advantage of them
  • Dishonest or ambiguous claims about the qualities or effectiveness of the products on offer – one telecoms company was taken to task for making claims about its broadband services which it was unable to substantiate when challenged by a competitor.

Two special cases

While it’s clear that the ASA pretty much got what it bargained for – albeit in slightly bigger numbers than expected – the new online remit did bring to light a couple of special cases:

  • Complementary medicine – thanks in part to orchestrated complaint campaigns, alternative therapies (Reiki, reflexology, chiropracty) and medicines (homeopathy and some ‘natural’ remedies) have received a great deal of attention. On the whole, complaints against them have been upheld, particularly when they make claims for proven medical effectiveness.
  • Groupon – the daily deals website breached the ASA code a total of 50 times in 2011, leading to a referral to the Office of Fair Trading. It’s an interesting case – while Groupon accepts that some of its deals may be misleading (covering all of the areas highlighted above – hidden costs, unavailability and unrealistic product claims – as well as exaggeration of the discounts available), it has maintained on a number of occasions that ultimate responsibility lies with the individual companies offering the deals. It has the potential to open a whole new can of legislative worms for the ASA – nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped the authority taking action where necessary. See its statement about Groupon here.

According to the ASA, most companies which have had complaints upheld against them have immediately complied with the ruling by changing or removing the offending campaigns, adverts or websites. But, true to its word, it has ‘named and shamed’ persistent offenders. There are currently 14 companies on the list, among them sites for alternative therapies, discount holidays and online gambling.

Overall, it appears that the ASA is very satisfied with its progress – in its own words, ‘a regulatory gap has been plugged and the principles of legal, decent, honest and truthful advertising are now being more widely and comprehensively applied’.

It remains to be seen if its regulatory stance will have an impact on companies’ behaviour before they make their claims or run their campaigns online, or whether they will continue to take risks in the belief that, if they get caught, they can simply remove the non-compliant material and move on to the next promotion.



This blog post was written by Steph

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