How the UK’s ad watchdog is using AI and data science to have more impact

The Advertising Standards Authority is hoping to have an in-house data science team in place by the end of the year to help it regulate online ads more effectively and efficiently.

Artificial intelligence and data science will play a “vital” role in the way advertising is regulated in the UK in future, with the UK’s ad watchdog investing heavily in technology that is able to tackle problem ads at scale and speed online.

The Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) is at the start of a five-year strategy to have more impact online, which has already seen the regulator introduce avatar technology to help it catch brands that are targeting children with gambling and junk food ads.

The ASA is now in the midst of launching an in-house data science team, which it hopes will allow it to better respond to the scale of the challenge of regulating an ever-increasing number of website and social media ads.

These plans have been waylaid slightly as a result of Covid-19, meaning the team will now likely launch at the end of this year or the beginning of 2021.

“That’s a really important way of delivering more impact on our online strategy,” the ASA’s chief executive, Guy Parker, tells Marketing Week. “It remains important that we can unpause these data science plans and begin to build that capability because we recognise how vital it is to our future regulation.”

The ASA is increasingly using social intelligence tools such as Brandwatch to strategically monitor ad content online. This allows the authority to both observe trends across a broad range of online content – such as gender presentation in ad – and also look for breaches of the advertising rules, such as unlabelled ads from individual influencers.

It is this kind of technology that enabled the ASA to take down 12,000 Instagram posts promoting Botox, which it is illegal to advertise, in three months. To try and raise awareness of the rules, the ASA launched its own Botox ad campaign using donated space across Facebook and Instagram, which reached 1.4 million people.

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The ASA is also trying to raise awareness of itself as a regulator among consumers. This year it will “double down” on advertising the ASA in Scotland so it can measure whether that has an impact on Scottish people’s trust and favourability towards advertising versus the rest of the UK.

“Raising awareness of the ASA, what we do and how we keep a lid on problems and make sure that ads are responsible continues to be an important part of what we do, particularly on the online advertising side of things,” Parker says.

“People know we regulate TV, print and outdoor but they aren’t up to speed with the extent of which we’re using technology to regulate online advertising.”

The impact of Covid-19

Back in March, the ASA said it would show forbearance on businesses who were struggling in the face of the Covid-19 crisis. For example, exercising “a very light touch” if it received complaints about goods not arriving in time, or ads that do not reflect social distancing – given many of these had been created before the crisis.

However, it has been using technology to double down on companies and individuals it believes have been exploiting the crisis for their own gain. This has included taking action on ads on social media that are promoting coronavirus-type treatments or solutions.

The ASA introduced a new way of reporting in March to make it easier for people to flag coronavirus-related issues. While the ASA’s regular online complaints form takes around eight minutes to complete, this only takes around 60 seconds and is something the ASA is considering making a permanent fixture.

“We recognised there was a need here to very quickly draw attention to stuff, without expecting it to be treated as a complaint,” Parker says. “We don’t take any personal data, it’s just to alert us to possible problems and take action where we need to.”

Pro-active collaboration

The ASA is working increasingly closely with online platforms and networks. A lot of this work is focused on tackling misleading and irresponsible paid-for ads, in particular scam ads.

Working in partnership with the major ad platforms, the ASA was able to develop a Scam Ad Alert system that quickly shares information about paid-for scam ads and allows ad networks to respond quickly to remove them and prevent similar ads appearing. A three-month trial of the system began in January 2020.

Influencer marketing continues to be a key focus – and headache – for the regulator. While it says more brands and influencers are labelling sponsored posts now than a few years ago, a “significant number” continue to flout the rules.

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It is currently working on a programme of enforcement activities that will begin to bear fruit in the coming months.

“Using technology to identify influencer posts that aren’t labelled #ad but show signs of being ads is an important part of that,” Parker says. “That’s where collaboration with the [Competition and Markets Authority] has been particularly important because that’s something their data scientists have been working on in recent months.”

The ASA created a ‘cheat sheet’ for Love Island contestants in partnership with ITV last year, aiming to demonstrate the importance of being upfront with their followers once they’ve got a bit of exposure and interest. The ASA will look into how effective this was as part of its enforcement work this year.



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