Regulation of the Advertising Industry

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

What is the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)?

The Advertising Standards Authority is the UK’s advertising regulator. It is independent of both government and the advertising industry, and its role is to maintain high standards in advertising.

Though ASA works independently of the Government, it is recognised by government and the courts, as well as also other agencies such as the Office of Communications (Ofcom) and Trading Standards.

Marketing Communications

The ASA is responsible for controlling marketing communications in all media within the UK for the protection of consumers from misleading marketing communications. Marketing communications include:

  • Print and press advertisements
  • Posters
  • TV commercials
  • Ads on video on demand
  • Radio advertisements
  • Internet advertisements (ie. advertisements in ‘paid for space’ such as banner and pop-ups, commercial emails and sales promotions, but not general product information on website home pages)
  • Text messages
  • Social media advertising
  • Direct mail (such as letters, leaflets, brochures, catalogues, circulars)
  • Competitions and special offers
  • Sales promotions
  • Cinema commercials
  • Teleshopping

What are the aims and functions of the ASA?

The ASA produces various Advertising Codes which lay down principles and guidelines which advertisers, agencies and media must adhere to in their advertisement campaigns.These Codes have various functions:

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

Advice

Before publishing an advertisement, agencies, advertisers and publishers can use the Advertising Codes as a guide to ensure they are complying with their provisions.

Resolving complaints

When the ASA receives a complaint, the relevant Code acts as rulebook to establish whether the advertisement, which is the subject of 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 Codes are being adhered to.

Structure of the ASA

ASA Council

The ASA Council is made up of 13 Council members (two-thirds of which are independent from the industry). It is also made up of a cross-section of the general public including young people, families, charities and consumer groups. The Council acts as a jury, deciding whether an advertisement has, as a matter of fact, breached the terms of the relevant Code of practice. The Council also operates as the ASA Board.

The Advertising Codes

The UK Advertising Codes lay down the rules by which all advertisers, agencies and media owners must follow. These are the Broadcast Code and the Non-broadcast Code, and are written by the 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 Broadcast Code (also known as the BACP Code). It is comprised of the main industry bodies representing advertisers, agencies and media owners.

Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP)

CAP is responsible for the codes for 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 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 through ambiguity or expressly misleading. This is particularly relevant when prices are quoted, and testimonials are given about a certain product.

There must be some form of social 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 Codes and care should be taken when showing excessive drinking or smoking.

The principles of fair competition for consumers must also be adhered to. Advertisements should not exploit the goodwill of others or belittle the products of rivals.

In addition to consumer protection, there are certain rules covering specific products and marketing techniques contained within the Codes. These include 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 are a company or a member of the general public. 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 (eg. post, email, or text messages)
  • Data capture and protection of privacy

A complaint can be made via the ASA website, by post, or by telephoning the ASA. You will need to give as much information as you can, including where possible, a photo or screenshot of the ad.

A complaint is first assessed against the Advertising Codes. The ASA may then contact the advertiser to give guidance and appropriate advice, while in other cases, a formal investigation may follow. The ASA then makes its recommendation to the ASA Council. The Council then makes its decision in its role as jury (the Council’s final rulings are published each week).

Sanctions

The ASA can impose various sanctions on advertisers who breach the Advertising Code:

  • 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 (one of the ASA’s most powerful tools): 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
  • Pre-vetting: persistent/serious offenders can be required to have their marketing material vetted before publication for up to two years
  • Legal proceedings: the ASA can refer persistent offenders to Trading Standards or Ofcom who can seek legal proceedings in order to gain an injunction against an offending advertisement