Brands told to expect a more proactive approach from ad watchdog

Brands have been told to expect a change in approach from the advertising watchdog that will see it increase its focus on proactive work addressing issues of societal concern. 

Ecigarette man
ASA will focus on addressing issues of societal concern such as e-cigarettes.

In its annual report published today (29 May) the Advertising Standards Authority says it will soon unveil a new five-year strategy that result in it “spending more time tackling problems in a swift and proactive manner”. The ultimate objective, the report states, “is to make every UK ad a responsible one”. 

The shift could see the ASA conduct more compliance audits and studies into ads in specific sectors to establish if there are issues that need to be addressed. This could, in turn, lead to publication of strengthened guidance to ensure ads do not fall foul of the advertising codes or even a change to Committee of Advertising Practice’s codes for broadcast and non-broadcast media.

The ASA has been moving in this direction in recent years in order to both reduce the volume of complaints received and address the concern of pressure groups, politicians and consumers.

Last year it committed to conducting a survey of food advertising, particularly online, to identify whether new rules need adding or existing codes amending, while CAP updated guidance to advertisers on how to comply with existing rules. 

Ministers are coming under increasing pressure from health campaigners to ban the advertising of food high in fat, sugar and salt before the 9pm watershed in an attempt to tackle obesity. 

Elsewhere, new rules on the advertising of e-cigarettes are being consulted on in advance of a new European Union regulation. 

Brinsley Dresden, a partner at law firm LewisSilkin specialising in media and brands, says the move is driven by a need to more effectively manage resources in the wake of the digital remit extension that saw it take on complaints about claims made on company websites and louder calls for it to take action on advertising.

“This has exposed the funding gap: there is more demand for the ASA’s services, without the commensurate increase in resources to satisfy that demand. Something has to give”, he adds.

The watchdog received  31,136 complaints about 18,580 ads in the year, down slightly on 2012. Significantly, more than 4,000 (4,161) were banned and therefore required a complete investigation, up 12.5 per cent on 2012. Its income, which is provided by a levy on brands’ advertising spend, increased to £5.3m from £4.9m. 

Dresden welcomes the shift in strategy and a more targeted use of resources by “concentrating on complaints which give rise to significant consumer protection issues and with a more proactive approach to enforcement or compliance, which is less inclined to be driven by the  of whims of public opinion, bloggers and tabloid newspapers, ” he adds. 

ISBA, which represents the interests of advertisers, also welcomed the change. Ian Twinn, ISBA’s director of public affairs, says: “We want our regulator to be as effective as possible and we support its ambition to make every UK ad a responsible one.

“The commitment to a ‘proactive way of working’ is a welcome acknowledgement of the need to work closely with consumers, advertisers and media.”

More details on the strategy will be published in the next couple of months. A spokesman for the ASA declined to comment further. 

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