Truth in Advertising

On March 1st, 2011, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) began to regulate UK companies’ own marketing communications on their websites and in other third party space under their control.

This landmark development will extend the consumer protections provided by the CAP Code (the rules written by the Committee of Advertising Practice, the industry body responsible for maintaining the non-broadcast advertising rules) to new areas online.

Effectively, the rules on misleading advertising, social responsibility and the protection of children will apply to online marketing communications.

This will help provide a level playing field online for companies and reinforce the fact that marketing messages that are legal, decent, honest and truthful are also more likely to be trusted and deliver value.

Why is this happening? An exponential rise in complaints in recent years about marketing claims on company websites (which the ASA has had to reject) has left industry open to criticism from consumers, politicians and more.

The UK ad industry has a long history of being committed to responsible advertising, so it has worked hard to plug this gap.

So what does this mean in practice? Our definition of a marketing communication on a website is a message where the primary intent is to sell something or raise funds now or in the future.

The new remit does not cover editorial content, such as corporate reports, CSR material, press releases and so on.

If the content of a particular site includes or makes easily accessible an ‘invitation to purchase’, it will fall within the ASA’s remit.

For example, by detailing the characteristics of a product or service, with or without its price, in a way that makes the consumer able to make a purchasing decision.

This can include marketing communications that are aimed at building long-term brand engagement, so even if the site doesn’t contain a purchasing facility, it can still contain marketing messages that fall within the ASA’s remit.

Significantly, the new remit also covers non-paid-for third party space under an organisation’s control such as social media sites.

For example, if a company makes a statement on Twitter saying Get it now – the best selling Xbox title of all time”, it would fall within our remit because it’s clearly a marketing communication.

Whereas Quarterly results are 10 per cent up on last year” would be a corporate communication that falls outside of the remit.

Importantly, companies will not be held responsible for social media pages set up by customers.

Similarly, user-generated content is not caught by the remit extension. However, if a company decides to adopt or incorporate some UGC into its own marketing communication, then it will be covered.

Anyone who includes marketing communications on their own websites should be under no illusion about the significance of the ASA’s digital remit extension. It is probably the biggest shift in approach to online ad regulation in recent years.

But advertisers should not be daunted by the prospect. The ASA is not here to try to catch advertisers out; rather we want companies to get their communications right.

This is why we have made it our priority to raise awareness of our new remit before it goes live.

In addition, the CAP has recently extended its range of essential training and advice tools and we would encourage you all to take advantage of them.

Top tips to ensure your website complies with the rules and avoids issues with the ASA:

– Designate responsibility to someone in your firm for ensuring your site complies with the rules

– Sign up to CAP Services and take advantage of the training and help on offer

– Seek free copy advice or discuss bespoke premium services such as an audit of your website

– Watch a webcast of ASA and CAP’s training seminars on the new remit

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