Online advertisers need their own Asbof to put down the pop-ups

As the Advertising Standards Board of Finance celebrates its 30th anniversary, another advertising nuisance is rearing its head in the shape of pop-ups, which are regularly flouting IAB guidelines

Asbof is the Advertising Standards Board of Finance, and its deliberately boring name disguises its highly important role. Its foundation, 30 years ago, saved the ad industry from statutory controls, threatened by an incoming, eager Labour government.

With food and alcohol advertising now in the firing line, internet advertising largely unregulated, and pressure being exerted to relax the television ad regulations, it’s a timely reminder to advertisers and media owners to take responsibility for their own actions.

As a young hack, I covered the 1974 Advertising Association conference in Brighton at which Shirley Williams and John Methven put the frighteners on the ad business. She was the consumer protection minister, he the first director of the Office of Fair Trading, and they accused advertising bosses of misleading the public. While TV and radio advertising was regulated by the Independent Broadcasting Authority, non-broadcast advertising – press, posters and cinema – had no statutory regulator. Williams and Methven made it clear: unless the industry tightened up the self-regulation system, the government would impose legal controls.

There was much blustering in Brighton as some of the bigwigs declared how outrageous it all was. But the industry did take action. The Advertising Standards Authority was beefed up almost beyond recognition, thanks to the imposition of a levy of 0.1 per cent on all non-broadcast advertising.

In recent years, the Asbof model has been copied at home and abroad. It spawned Presbof, which funds the Press Complaints Commission, and Basbof, the new system of broadcast advertising regulation that Ofcom has contracted out, turning the ASA into a one-stop shop for advertising complaints. It is testimony to the system’s success that advertisers now cough up their 0.1 per cent on TV and radio advertising – as well as non-broadcast – without a murmur (at least in public).

That success was acknowledged by the presence at last week’s reception of a rather different Labour minister – James Purnell, minister for the creative industries, who confessed he’d tried and failed to get into advertising after leaving university. He praised the UK ad business, saying it was a world leader in its sector, setting a standard for other parts of the creative industries.

It’s ironic, then, that much of my conversation that evening was about the growing intrusiveness of some advertising, particularly in the booming sector of new media.

A very senior representative of the ad business told me how fed up he was with pop-ups on the internet. He claimed the best creative minds were now being deployed to hide the “close” box on the screen, disguising it in a dark part of the background or putting it at the bottom, off the screen, so you have to scroll down before clicking it.

In the past few days, my broadband provider AOL has provided yet more cause for complaint. It regularly devotes the top right quarter of its opening screen to an advertisement which opens up as soon as the mouse scrolls over it.

On Sunday it was for Ebay. A woman exhorted me to “tickle the stocking, reveal the perfect gift”. I declined and clicked the X on the Close box, which was in the right hand corner of the ad, normally a good place, since it’s very visible. But in this case, having clicked the box, it was almost impossible to move the mouse without passing over the picture, so it immediately doubled in size again and again. If you accidentally touched one of the Christmas stockings, the ad ran amok in a flurry of animation.

On Monday, the ad read “Sybot – the world’s most powerful computer – roll over for a demo”. Impossible to avoid, it immediately took over the whole screen, promising to answer any question, before frantically blowing an animated fuse after a very long 15 seconds. The screen then changed to this: “Oops, looks like Sybot needs some help – while we fix him, ask a question at barclays.co.uk and we’ll do our very best to answer it. Barclays – your banking questions answered.”

Worse, on this occasion the close box was off the bottom of the screen, so you had to scroll down before you could click it.

Have AOL, Ebay and Barclays not read the Internet Advertising Bureau’s standards guidelines? These warn against “irritating and frustrating the user”. All executions “should feature a close button in the top right hand corner”. The close button “should be clearly visible at all times”. “Respect the viewing experience.” “Engage, don’t annoy.”

If three major companies like these can’t follow the guidelines, what hope is there for the others? Given their anti-social behaviour, perhaps the industry does need an ASBO, as well as Asbof.

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