After spending 6 months monitoring over 600 banner and pop-up ads on UK websites, the ASA arrived at some startling findings.
Topic: Advertising on-line
Who: The Advertising Standards Authority
When: April 2003
The Advertising Standards Authority ("ASA") is the independent body that endorses and administers the British Code of Advertising, Sale Promotion and Direct Marketing ("the CAP Code") that applies to non-broadcast marketing communications. In April 2003 it published the results of its first survey into the compliance with the CAP Code of internet banner and pop up advertisements.
357 banner advertisements and 264 pop-up advertisements that appeared within a representative sample of UK websites between 1 July 2002 and 31 December 2002 were assessed.
The objectives of the survey were (1) to assess compliance rates for banner and pop up ads appearing within a representative sample of UK websites, (2) if necessary, to contact the marketers responsible for advertisements that broke the codes and obtain their assurance that they will amend their advertising, (3)to identify any potential problem areas either by category or medium and ascertain whether further action was appropriate and (4) as part of on-going compliance work, to act as a deterrent to bad practice and an encouragement to good practice.
The advertisements surveyed were categorised as either compliant with the CAP Code, in breach of the CAP Code or "questionable". "Questionable" was the assessment if it was felt that the advertisers might have had difficulty in providing evidence to support particular claims, the advertisement might have appeared on an inappropriate website or because only the ASA Council could provide a definitive decision.
In the event, only one advertisement was held to breach the Code (a compliance rate of 99%) whilst a further 37 were regarded as "questionable", a compliance rate of 94%.
The leisure sector was the biggest in the survey with 108 advertisements, comprising 30.5% of the entire sample and including products ranging from ads for films, online auction sights, competitions and give-aways, clubs, introduction agencies, on-line betting and gaming sites.
This sector had the highest number of "questionable advertisements" at 18 and all but one of the "questionable" banner ads were for betting and gaming websites. These appeared on websites that could appeal to people under the age of 18, potentially breaching clause 56.4 of the CAP Code. This states that no medium should be used to advertise betting and gaming if more than 25% of its audience is under 18 years of age. The websites in which those ads appeared included well-known Internet search engine home pages, on-line football chat and information sites, Premier League football team home pages, popular sporting websites and on-line games and competitions websites.
The remaining "questionable" advertisement in this sector was for a punch bag and was considered to be "questionable" under clause 11.1 of the CAP Code because some viewers might interpret the advertisement as condoning anti-social behaviour.
The only advertisement in the survey that actually breached the CAP Code was in the motoring sector and was for MG Rover. The breach related to making speed the predominant message or encouraging irresponsible driving.
In many cases, advertisements might have been held to be "questionable" in other media because of the absence of relevant terms and conditions, but because the advertising here was on line and relevant terms and conditions were easily accessible to users through the advertiser's main websites, this was not held to be a problem. The same applied to a number of advertisements in the financial sector, where 35 pop-up ads were covered by the survey. Most of the ads contained few or no terms and conditions but were not considered problematic or "questionable" because any such relevant terms could be easily accessed by clicking through to the advertiser's website.
The computers and telecommunications sector was the second highest represented sector in the survey with 90 advertisements. Many of the banner ads in the sample, particularly those by internet service providers, contained lots of visual imagery and only basic information on the service being advertised. If placed unchanged in other media, such as newspapers it was likely that the advertisements would have been classed as problematic or "questionable" because they did not include important terms and conditions.
However, again it was considered that the advertisements were acceptable in this medium because users could quickly, easily and at little, if any, cost click on the banner advertisement and immediately access the advertiser's website that included all the terms and conditions.
Why this matters:
The 99% compliance rate is extremely encouraging and compares very favourably with the compliance rate for other media so far as the CAP Code is concerned. One suspects that the same cannot be said for websites owners' advertising appearing on their own website, which is not covered by the CAP Code.
So much is suggested by the results of a recent worldwide search of the Internet by 87 enforcement agencies, including the UK's own Office of Fair Trading. This revealed that of 50 UK travel websites, 40% contained misleading advertisements. The OFT also found more than 100 potential breaches of consumer legislation such as unfair contract terms and breaches of distance selling regulations and many cheap holiday deals on the internet that could in fact end up costing more than the advertised price.
Perhaps the findings as regards the UK websites might have been different if the ambit of the CAP Code and the corresponding remit of the ASA had not been reduced a couple of years ago so as to exclude advertising material on advertisers' own websites and to cover only, in an on-line context, paid-for banner and pop up ads, email marketing and marketing promotions on-line. Nevertheless, the survey is an encouraging result for a still quite young marketing channel, and will hopefully encourage more advertising spend to be committed in this direction.