Who: The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA)
When: 14 July 2020
Law stated as at: 3 August 2020
The ASA has released a report tracking the complaint cases they received during the peak of the Covid-19 health crisis, to understand if and how consumer concerns have changed.
The ASA’s analysis reveals that there was a notable shift in complaints made by consumers in the three months during the peak of the crisis, as compared to the three months immediately preceding it.
Change by industry
Changes included an unsurprising marked drop in complaints against the travel sector, likely to be a reflection of restrictions on the industry and subsequent reduced advertising spend in this area. There were also marked decreases in the complaints made in other industries similarly impacted by restrictions in this period, for example in the motoring, retail, property, business and leisure industries.
In contrast, there was a marginal increase in complaints about ads for both clothing and health & beauty products.
Change by media forum
The reports also notes a marked changed in the media form of complaint cases. Unsurprisingly, TV and online media were the most complained about ad medium during lockdown while complaints about ads on any out-of-home media all but stopped.
Although the above changes seem obvious in light of government restrictions during the lockdown, the ASA also points out an interesting downward trend in online ad complaints, noting an almost 30% drop in complaint cases about companies’ website and social media advertising, which is difficult to explain. This stands in contrast to the number of TV ad complaint cases that remained relatively level.
The ASA’s analysis also reflects on how the industry has had to adapt to new ways of working and the actions the ASA have taken to try to protect both consumers and businesses. The ASA notes the delicate balancing act required to ensure consumer protection whilst also being sensitive to the existential threats faced by many businesses and sectors in the current climate, many of whom are facing unforeseen pressures and squeezed advertising budgets. In this context, the ASA notes that not all complaints around Covid-19 have resulted in investigations and adverts bans. The ASA also maintains that it will exercise discretion on minor issues where this is appropriate, with an internal team set up help achieve this delicate balance.
However, the ASA has also confirmed that it has focused on acting decisively where adverts undermine the UK’s reaction to the crisis, setting up fast-tracked investigations into adverts that have been deemed to have exploited the crisis. The ASA has also set up a quick reporting form on its website to make it easier for consumer to flag misleading or irresponsible adverts.
Why this matters:
It’s clear from the ASA’s analysis that, as with all parts of society, the advertising industry has been impacted by the health crisis. This is reflected in the ASA’s statement that “the shift in ad spend away from outdoor media to online and TV channels, and the reduction in ad spend by certain sectors is broadly reflected in the volume and nature of complaint cases we’ve received (the curious fall in cases about company website and social media advertising notwithstanding)”. It remains to be seen how the advertising landscape will develop and whether the health crisis will have long-term impact on the advertising industry.
In terms of the ASA’s approach in the current unprecedented climate, the ASA does acknowledge the pressures currently faced by businesses and stresses the proportionate approach to complaints it is taking in what it understands is a difficult time for many business. With that being said, advertisers should note that the ASA continues to take a no-nonsense approach to adverts which it deems to have exploited consumers and is continuing to work closely with other regulatory bodies, including the Competition and Markets Authority, National Trading Standards and the Gambling Commission, to crack down on misleading advertisers.