Who: Advertising Standards Authority and Committee of Advertising Practice
When: May 2014
The UK advertising regulator the Advertising Standards Authority (“ASA”) and its sister body the Committee of Advertising Practice (“CAP”) published their joint Annual Report for 2013.
• of the top ten most complained about ads, only four were found to breach the Code –does this suggest the ASA/CAP regime is out of step with the zeitgeist and needs to review the Code and/or the make-up of the Council that adjudicates on complaints? Go figure;
• an eye-watering twelve-fold year-on year-increase in operating losses (driven largely by increased staff costs) did not have too negative an impact on finances thanks to a healthy upturn in “other income” from, for example seminars, but the overall loss before tax of £48,157 still compares unfavourably with the 2012 surplus of £73,132;
• in terms of which media carried the most complained-about ads, the biggest increase on 2012 was mobile at 260%. The second biggest increase was in-game advertising at 75%;
• by sector, complaint levels materially increased the most in respect of food and drink ads at 58% more than in 2012;
• the significant increase in complaints about food and drink ads was largely driven not by new EU nutrition and health claim rules but by six campaigns for products such as Marmite, Red Bull and Bertolli spread which allegedly caused harm and distress. Interestingly, the complaints in respect of all these three campaigns were thrown out;
• a 12.5% year-on-year increase in ads amended or withdrawn following enforcement action;
• low complaint levels after new behavioural advertising rules came into force in February 2013, but as awareness grows, this may change;
• online advertising took up 31% of the ASA’s case load, up from 28% in 2012;
• CAP’s review of the ASA and CAP’s handling of the “new” online remit two years on from its introduction found that overall this was “working effectively.” Yet to be determined, however, was the full impact of CAP’s online compliance strategy and Trading Standards becoming the new legal backstop for CAP Code enforcement in place of the now defunct OFT, so the online sanctions regime will be reviewed again in 2014;
• the largest group of users of the “independent review” appeal process were commercial competitors;
• the percentage of ASA decisions reversed following an independent review jumped dramatically from 3.5% to 9.8% but in terms of sheer numbers, remained impressively or worryingly (depending on your viewpoint) low at 5 out of 51 compared to 2 out of 57 in 2012;
• the top three biggest reductions were not surprisingly directories (56%), fax (50%) and inserts (41%) but counter-intuitively in light of the big increase in complained about mobile ads, complaints about text messages were the fourth biggest droppers at 40%;.
• still on food advertising, this time with children in mind, in light of continuing concerns and changes to digital media, CAP has commissioned “Dr. Barbie Clarke and Family, Kids and Youth” to carry out a “comprehensive literature review of the impact of digital and online marketing of food and drink products to children.”
Why this matters:
Concerns about high levels of complaints being rejected notwithstanding, the Report presents an overall picture of a regulatory body that is well-run by the consistently impressive ASA CEO Guy Parker and his team. It also demonstrates a level of control of its wide remit that enables it to continue to command the respect of all stakeholders that is the essential foundation for its proper function.
That said, there are challenges ahead. These include question marks over the effectiveness of the new legal backstop to the CAP Code in the form of Trading Standards and worries that “soft” issues of alarm and distress are not being addressed in a way that reflects current attitudes and mores.
There are also continuing financial pressures, driven, one suspects, by the online sector not necessarily paying its way in terms of levies to the Advertising Standards Board of Finance that properly reflect its impact on ASA staff workloads.
A related concern is whether the current CAP membership, much of which still features old-word advertising bodies, should, going forward, better better the onward march of digital and online advertising towards 50% of ad spend by maybe as soon as 2017.
One suspects that with the redoubtable Mr Parker at the helm, the über ad regulator will be more than equal to these challenges, but just how long will a mere not-for-profit NGO be able to beat off the approaches that are probably already being made by the private sector to its young, thrusting and probably highly ambitious chief executive?