Regulation of the Advertising Industry

Regulation

The advertising industry in the UK is regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority.

Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)

The Advertising Standards Authority is a UK watchdog which is committed to maintaining high standards in advertising looking specifically at the consumers, the advertisers and the society as a whole.

It is an independent agency meaning that it works independently from the UK Government and the advertising industry. The fact that the ASA works independently of the Government does not detract from the fact that it is government recognised and recognised by the courts and also other agencies such as the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and the Office of Communications (Ofcom).

Marketing Communications

The ASA is responsible for controlling marketing communications in all media within the UK. Marketing Communications are the said to be the following:

  • Print and press advertisements
  • Posters
  • Television commercials
  • Radio advertisements
  • Internet advertisements – this means advertisements in “paid for space” such as banner and pop-up, commercial emails and sales promotions but does not extend to general product information on web site home pages
  • Text messages
  • Direct mail – such as letters, leaflets, brochures, catalogues, circulars
  • Competitions, special offers
  • Sales promotions
  • Cinema commercials
  • Teleshopping

Aims and Functions

The ASA produces Advertising Codes which is fundamentally a set of principals and guidelines concerning the context of advertisements.

The ASA then uses the codes for the following three functions:

  1. To provide advice
  2. To resolve complaints
  3. To undertake research

Advice

Prior to publication of an advertisement certain agencies, advertisers and publishers can use the code as a guide to ensure that they are complying with the provisions contained within.

Resolving Complaints

When the ASA receives a complaint the codes are used as a form of rulebook to establish whether a complaint from a member of the public, a consumer group or a company has in fact breached the code.

Research

The ASA will make weekly spot checks to ensure that the rules of the code are being adhered to.

Structure of the ASA

ASA Council

When investigating a complaint the ASA Council is the body or jury that decides whether a certain advertisement has in fact breached the terms of the code. Much of the council is made up of people who are independent from the industry and those who are not are vastly experienced and high up in the industry. The ASA Council is also made up of a cross section of the general public which includes young people, families, charities and consumer groups. This enables it to fully appreciate all the issues that it must deal with.

The Advertising Codes

The advertising codes lay down the rules by which all advertisers, agencies and media owners must follow and are written by advertising industry through the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP).

Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP)

BCAP is responsible for writing and maintaining the TV and Radio Advertising Standards Code and is comprised of the main industry bodies representing advertisers, agencies and media owners.

Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP)

CAP is responsible for the codes concerning non-broadcast advertisements, sales promotions and direct marketing and is comprised of the main industry bodies representing advertisers, agencies and media owners.

Rules of the Codes

An advertisement should not break the law and should not incite others to break the law.

It should be decent and should not cause offence. Advertisers should take particular care in trying to avoid causing offence on grounds of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or disability. Whether a particular product may be offensive to certain people will not be seen as a valid reason for holding that the advertisement itself is offensive. The advertisement will be judged on its own merits.  

It should not take unfair advantage of consumers by exploiting their credulity or inexperience and it must not mislead a consumer whether that be through ambiguity or expressly misleading. This comes into play specifically when prices are quoted and testimonials are given about a certain product.  

There must be some form of socially responsibility in the preparation of advertisements. This means in practice that advertisers should not condone violence or antisocial behaviour and care should be taken not to exploit the privacy of consumers. Referring to or portraying individuals without their permission will fall foul of the code and care should be taken when showing excessive drinking or smoking.

The principals of fair competition for consumers must also be adhered to and advertisements should not exploit the goodwill of others or try to belittle the products of rivals.

There is also another layer on top of the consumer protection established by law provided by the codes as certain rules for specific products and marketing techniques are contained within the codes. This includes rules for alcoholic drinks, health and beauty claims, children, medicine, financial products, environmental claims, gambling, direct marketing and prize promotions. 

The Complaints Procedure

Who can make a complaint?

Anyone can submit a complaint to the ASA whether they be a company or a member of the general public.

Complaints

The ASA deals with the following kind of complaints:

  • Misleading, inappropriate or offensive advertisements
  • Difficulty getting goods or refunds for goods which have been purchased by mail order or though televised shopping channels
  • Promotions that have been unfairly run
  • Unwanted mail from companies – this can be post, email, fax or text message
  • Data capture and protection of privacy

All complaints can be made  in writing by post or online and in some cases over the telephone when concerned with TV, radio or cinema commercials, or a poster or national press add.

Sanctions

The ASA may carry out the following sanctions on advertisers who have breached the codes:

  • Withdrawal – the ASA will first ask if the offending advertisement can be withdrawn
  • Refusal of advertising space – the ASA can ask publishers and media owners to refuse advertising space for a particular advertisement until it has been changed
  • Adverse publicity – the ASA publishes outcomes in relation to advertisements on the websites which will cause adverse publicity to certain advertisers
  • Withdrawal of trading privileges – financial discounts and other incentives can be withdrawn
  • Legal proceedings – the ASA can refer persistent offenders to the Office of Fair Trading who can seek legal proceedings in order to gain an injunction against an offending advertisement