Ad watchdog details ‘principles’ approach to regulating brand ads

Brands’ advertising will be scrutinised against high-level principles to ensure complaints are dealt with quicker as part of the ad watchdog’s new proactive approach to regulation.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is proposing four principles (see below) to try and establish a faster and more efficient way to allocate resources.

Each proposal builds on the regulator’s existing mandate but where it previously gave equal weighting to complaints, the new guidelines offer more thought to the nature of the complaint and how harmful the ad is. For example, if the ASA receives one complaint for an ad that has not attracted others and does not appear to cause harm then it could lead to action other than an investigation – such as conducting research, analysing complaints trends, dealing with more problems on a sector or issue basis.

The ASA’s four proposed principles to regulating ads

  • What harm or detriment has occurred;
  • The likely risk of action versus inaction;
  • The likely impact of our intervention; and
  • What resource would be proportionate to the problem to be tackled

The principles aim to do away with the ASA’s old approach, which it admits meant it spent more time and  resource tracking ads that did not cause harm. Of the ten most complained about ads in 2013 seven escaped censure including a TV spot for Unilever’s Flora brand (see above), which was alleged to feature irresponsible mild sexual references.

Despite the proposals, the watchdog stresses it will “never” ignore the complaints it receives and it is only the nature of the action it takes that will change. This means rather than having to respond to all complaints to explain the process, the watchdog could decline to share any more details beyond notification that action is being undertaken.

Guy Parker, chief executive of the ASA says: “If we’re to remain an effective and relevant regulator, we must continue to respond to an ever changing media landscape that places new and varied demands on our resources. We invite all our stakeholders to respond to the consultation so that we ensure our prioritisation principles will help us have the biggest impact on the issues that matter most to both consumers and business.”

The ASA adds that it will use the additional resource to tackle social issues – in particular, public health and advertising aimed at children and the financially vulnerable. It will also extend beyond just complaints handling to the organsiation’s regulatory policies, copy advice and communications teams.

The consultation ends on the 1 December.

The proposals are the latest from the ASA’s new strategy for regulating ads, which ultimately mean it won’t wait for complaints before acting against a brand. Additional elements of the strategy include speeding up the referrals of advertisers that fail to comply with rulings to statute-backed regulators and more proactive work around addressing misleading pricing in ads.

The organisation is trying to better allocate finances at a time of greater demand for its services in an increasingly fragmented media space. The watchdog received 31,136 complaints on around 18,580 ads last year, down slightly on 2012. More than 4,000 (4,161) of those ads were banned following investigations, a 12.5% increase on 2012. Its income, which is provided by a fee on brands’ advertising spend, increased to £5.3m from £4.9m.

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