In probably its last annual report before it becomes the UK’s super-ad complaint handler, the Advertising Standards Authority reveals that the vast majority of the top ten most complained about ads of 2003 were found to comply with the Code. Yes, really!
Topic: Self regulation
Who: The Advertising Standards Authority
When: April 2004
The Advertising Standards Authority published its annual report for 2003. Available from the ASA's website on www.asa.org.uk, the report reveals a record year for halting misleading or offensive advertisements. 1,702 non-broadcast ads were changed or withdrawn during the year either as a result ASA action following complaints or proactive action by the authority to ensure compliance with the advertising industry's code of practice, the CAP Code.
More OFT action
More than in any previous year, no less than 8 advertisers were referred to the Office of Fair Trading under the Control of Misleading Advertisements Regulations. These provide a legal backstop to the existing advertising control mechanisms and empower the OFT to apply to Court if necessary, for injunctions preventing further publication of advertising which is contrary to laws or codes.
Record complaints received
No less than 14,277 complaints were received relating to 10,754 ads – a rise of 2.3% compared with 2002 so far as complaint levels were concerned, complaints to the ASA have risen by 60% since 2000.
Ten most complained about ads
The top 10 most complained about ads were not all the subject of "complaint upheld" findings. The second highest number of complaints in the year, for example, related to SCA Hygiene UK Limited posters for toilet paper showing naked bottoms. Despite 375 complaints having been received, all were thrown out as being not justified.
A similar fate was enjoyed by 199 complaints (3rd highest) over EasyJet posters under the headline "Discover weapons of mass destruction" with a photograph of a brassiered ample bosom.
In fact, no less than 7 out of the top 10 most complained about ads were found to be compliant with the code. Cause for concern here as to whether the code is in line with public sensibilities and feelings about advertising?
One area where numbers were down was complaints from companies about their competitors' advertising. These fell for the second year running and now comprise just 7% of the ASA's total case load, assuming that no consumer complaints over advertising are not in reality initiated by competitors of the advertiser complained about.
The sectors that saw the biggest increase in complaints over 2003 were holidays and travel (up from 818 to 1,288) and "non-commercial" (charities) up from 500 to 1,166, whilst the biggest fallers were health and beauty down from 1,401 in 2002 to 888 and "food and drink" down from 1,222 in 2002 to 489 in 2003.
The marketing channels that gave rise to the biggest increases in complaints was e-mail, up from 17 in 2002 to 455 in 2003 and text messages up from 65 to 393.
The medium attracting the most complaints was direct mail, although the 2,521 complaints received represented a drop of 7% in comparison to 2002.
Complaints over what?
There was an increase of 18% in objections to offensive advertisements where no less than 26% of the total number of complaints received related to taste and decency.
Misleadingness continued to be the most common reason for complaining.
Sources of complaints
2003 was a watershed year for complaining by e-mail. 45% of complaints to the ASA arrived via the complaints form at www.asa.org.uk in 2003 compared with 28% in 2002.
Compared with 2002, the income received from the Advertising Standards Board of Finance (which collects the levy on non-broadcast advertising spend which finances the whole system) was up 5.2% to £4,565,000. This meant that although the ASA incurred consultancy and professional fees (including presumably outside lawyers' fees) of no than less than £284,644, there was an excess of income over expenditure of £7,879, a slight drop on the £9,535 excess of 2002. After tax, then, a profit of £4,210 for 2003. Not bad housekeeping.
Key performance indicators
The average time taken to resolve complaints in 2003 was 27 days. This was the same as in 2002, but was outside the ASA's self-imposed 25 day target. This will be retained for 2004, but the report cautions that if complaint levels continue to rise this may need to be reviewed. Nevertheless 73% of complainants were in a recent survey either satisfied or very satisfied with the speed with which the ASA acted and 68% of people who complained to the ASA were satisfied with the clarity with which the complaints procedure was explained.
Why this matters:
The ASA clearly continues to be highly active, with an ever-increasing profile and consequent increases in the complaints which they have to handle. Nevertheless, the levy system seems to enable it to hold the line in terms of matching income with the expenditure required on the handling of increased complaints.
It is to be hoped that the same applies to its new broadcast advertising complaint handling role come late 2004.