For some while now, the UK’s ad super-regulator has been conducting a root and branch review of its complaint handling processes. After publishing two updates announcing various changes, it has put out a “Supplement to the Update on the Process Review.” Anna Williams finds out whether more big changes are in store.
Who: Advertising Standards Authority
When: 9 March 2011
Where: United Kingdom
Law stated as at: 28 March 2011
The Advertising Standard Authority (ASA) is keen to be seen to be following up on the recommendations made in the 2010 "Process Review Final Report (Berkshire's Report)" which looked into how the ASA operates and how its processes could be improved for the benefit of its stakeholders.
The ad uber regulator has therefore issued a "Supplement to the Update on the Process Review" which provides a further update on the changes to its practices that it intends to put into place over the next two years. This follows the ASA's "Preliminary Response to the Process Review (Preliminary Response)" published on 24 June 2010 and "Update on the Process Review (Update)" published on 6 December 2010. Maybe the process review should include a review of how it thinks up titles to process review reports!
So what is the ASA reporting to the industry in this latest update? Well they have focused on three main topics – how they can speed up formal investigations, how they can use experts consistently with Clearcast and the RACC and how they can save money and generate additional revenue.
1. Faster Formal Investigations
As the ASA has referenced in its previous updates, it analysed how long 10% of the cases it formally investigated in 2009 took to deal with. The idea was to assess hold-ups in the process and how ‘waiting’ time could be reduced.
The outcome of the analysis revealed that while the ball was in the court of advertisers for an average of 24 days, it was in the ASA's own court for an average of 69 days per case (which includes the time spent on the initial assessments of complaints for their suitability for investigation). With this data in mind, the ASA put the following changes into effect as from 1 March 2011:
(a) nine calendar days was the average time taken from the day on which cases were allocated for investigation to the day on which correspondence was sent to the advertiser for comment. The ASA is now setting its staff an internal target of five working days for that stage;
(b) the ASA will reduce the time non-broadcast interested parties are given to respond to notification from the ASA from ten to seven working days (except where matters of ‘taste and decency’ are concerned which have a deadline of five working days). This is in line with the ASA's current deadline for broadcast ads. The ASA has indicated that more time could still be allowed for 'complicated' investigations or in other 'exceptional' circumstances, but they have also made it clear that a time extension is unlikely to be granted for longer than five working days and repeated requests for extensions by an individual advertiser are likely to be refused;
(c) the ASA will start to restrict its criteria for categorising cases as 'Complex'. More time is allocated for processing these, so cutting them down should help speed things generally. Case types no longer automatically categorised as "complex" will include multi-media cases, competitor cases that are not being investigated under a substantiation rule, teleshopping cases and cases that are re-presented to the ASA Council for a vote. The ASA's target is to increase the proportion of "Standard Investigations" from its current 55% of total formal investigations to 70% within the next two years. This should then impact on the average number of working days that the ASA takes to complete all formal investigations (which currently stands at 73 working days and which the ASA wants to reduce to 68 working days by 1 March 2013);
(d) as discussed by the ASA in its December 2010 update, the ASA will no longer be considering charging competitors to complain to the ASA about each other's advertising campaigns (as section 28(2)(a) of the Communications Act prohibits such charging). However, together with the ISBA and some of its members, the ASA is now re-examining introducing a charge for an expedited competitor complaint handling process (for example one involving tighter response deadlines and fewer opportunities to argue the case in hand), with those who chose not to pay receiving a normal service.
However, for such a process to be successful, the ASA has acknowledged it will have to overcome the fact that competitor complainants might be willing to pay for an expedited service, but most advertisers would be likely to opt for the normal service, all other things being equal. The ASA is therefore still keen to investigate the ways in which it could reduce the number and nature of ‘tit-for-tat’ complaints between competitor complainants. One option being considered is requiring competitors to provide documentary evidence to the ASA that they have made a genuine attempt to resolve their concerns direct with the advertiser in question before the ASA will agree to investigate the matter.
2. Common pool of experts
The ASA already provides Clearcast and its experts with an opportunity to respond to the grounds for any advertising complaint before the ASA consults its own expert. The ASA has indicated that if it is satisfied with Clearcast’s response (or that of Clearcast's expert), it does not consider it needs to go to the time and expense of consulting its own expert on the same matter.
The ASA, Clearcast and the RACC have therefore established a common pool of experts for advertising matters and five experts have been appointed. The experts have met and are in the process of discussing appropriate expert selection criteria; guidance for the development and support of claims in cosmetics advertising; the approach to assessing evidence for claims; and particular areas of concern in advertising (for instance the level of evidence required for certain types of claim). More details shall be contained within the ASA's final report on its process review and details of the experts should be published soon before they start to operate officially during Q2 of 2011.
3. Charging for premium Copy Advice service
As has been previously reported, Copy Advice will, from the beginning of Q2 2011, apply a premium charge for a same-day turnaround of enquiries from advertisers and agencies. The ASA's aim is to reduce the number of last-minute urgent requests because they can be potentially disruptive and time-consuming for the Copy Advice team. The charge for the premium service shall be £200 + VAT per enquiry with a 15% discount for upfront online payment.
The ASA hopes last-minute requests will both decrease and generate £10,000 in 2011. It is hoped that this premium service, together with the Website Audit service launched prior to the ASA's digital remit extension, will enable the Copy Advice service to manage its resources. It is also expected that the uptake of requests for website audits could lead to an extra £40,000 in revenue for the ASA in 2011.
Why this matters:
The ASA is at pains to point out that while it wants to be more cost-effective, the Process Review is not all about saving money. However, the latest update clearly indicates the potential savings to the ASA of the recommended new practices. It is predicted that increasing the proportion of Standard Investigations from 55% to 70% over the next two years will free up ‘case days’ for ASA staff with a notional efficiency value of £67,804.84 per year from 1 March 2013. Reducing the average turnaround of all formal investigations by five working days over two years will also free up ‘case days’ with a notional efficiency value of £65,174.28 per year. Finally, income expected to be received from the proposed charges for Copy Advice Website Audits amounts to approximately £40,000 during the year 2011. Clearly a motivation to the ASA to ensure it amends its processes efficiently and gets it right.
The ASA is keen to point out that the Process Review being conducted is all about the ASA improving the way it does this and that the changes are being implemented because it wants to be more effective, efficient and in tune with its stakeholders.
Despite three updates as to where the ASA's thinking is headed, we are still awaiting their final report. The latest indication from the ASA is that the final report shall be published "later in 2011" (and probably in quarter three of 2011). Until then we still wait to receive the ASA's final say on all the changes that it will introduce and when the changes are put into practice. We will then all be able to assess whether they lead to the efficiencies the ASA is hoping for.
In the meantime advertisers certainly need to note the proposals for competitors to show evidence of their attempts to resolve advertising disputes before any compliant will be considered by the ASA. This will certainly be a cultural change for advertisers and they shall have to more carefully assess which competitor campaigns they want to take issue with as they can no longer just send a complaint to the ASA expecting it to be picked up and actioned – they will have to take steps to discussing the issue with their competitors first.