Guy Parker explained that the ASA will be listening to its audience in new ways, engaging with all regions and age groups, especially on local issues such as ‘free delivery’ claims that actually exclude Northern Ireland or more remote regions of Scotland. Achieving wide-ranging engagement means more intelligence gathering and smarter ways to identify key issues.
Acknowledging that trust in authority is generally declining and people are expecting more of those in positions of power, the ASA is keen to put the public first, but Guy pointed out that doesn’t mean it can prevent everyone from being offended, particularly with social ‘norms’ changing so rapidly.
The online landscape, and especially social media platforms, is often seen as ‘the wild west’ when it comes to advertising but this has all been within the ASA’s remit since 2011 – many advertisers just don’t know that, making it a tough job to keep on top of content that can appear, change and be retracted so quickly and so easily. Of the 7,099 ads amended or withdrawn in 2017 following ASA intervention, 88% were online, so digital advertisers are certainly not beyond reproach.
Initiatives include continuing work with online platforms to crack down on irresponsible practices and targeting challenges raised by new technologies such as image recognition and targeted behavioural advertising. By way of example, the ASA is already using a child avatar in an attempt to gain an accurate idea of online content targeted at children. New technology is a lucrative field and therefore being heavily exploited but many new entrants have no knowledge of CAP Code requirements.
The ‘Protecting Children Online’ panel discussion just grazed the surface of issues affecting children’s body image, mental health and the risks of grooming but Professor Tanya Byron (clinical psychologist, broadcaster, author of the Byron Review and mother) highlighted that children these days are ‘digital citizens’ and the onus is on parents to have some difficult conversations, taking responsibility for developing their emotional resilience. Allowing children to use smartphones and tablets without addressing the risks would, she suggested, be akin to buying a child a car without driving lessons. Karim Palant, public policy officer for Facebook, explained the platform’s progress in locating and removing inappropriate images but Professor Byron believes platforms have to be much more proactive.
How can the ASA’s limited resources be put to best use? Can simpler reporting processes be implemented, emulating now commonplace reporting features used on social networks, so the ASA is better able to respond ‘nimbly’ to consumer and competitor concerns?
Guy Parker explained the intention to identify and focus on key areas of public concern, such as risks posed to youngsters by the online community, gender stereotyping and promotion of HFSS foods (food and soft drink products that are high in fat, salt or sugar).
The strategy seeks to gain greater buy-in from SMEs and online only advertisers who currently don’t understand the framework for advertising regulation or simply choose not to engage with it. In an era where, as discussed in a panel session, ‘millennials do not want to be advertised to in a traditional way’, this is particularly true given the shift away from advertising campaigns towards affiliate marketing and Instagram influencers. Those relying on innovative means of advertising need to remember their obligations not to mislead consumers rather than simply focusing on metrics such as how many ‘followers’ they are reaching, as remaining transparent will help towards regaining consumer trust.
If the ASA cannot secure buy-in from major platforms and from the majority of advertisers, the regime risks being replaced with a regulator imposed by government. If the ASA is replaced with a statutory regulator, that could lead to a slower and more costly system run by people lacking in industry insight and experience – whereas the ASA has always been willing to support and engage with advertisers to ensure compliance. In an earlier panel discussion, Reg Bailey (member of the ASA Council and author of the Bailey Review) had commented that, in his many years of experience, a good deal of advertisers are simply not interested in accepting responsibility and so changing that mindset will be more powerful than implementing stricter regulation.
It was addressed throughout the day that compliance with the Codes would be in SMEs’ best interests – and would help to evidence the effectiveness of the self-regulatory system. Thus, the ASA is seeking to accelerate its efforts over the next five years in building awareness about the regulatory framework and educating SMEs regarding their responsibilities.
If the other strands of the strategy deliver on enhancing the ASA’s ability to identify non-compliance, there should be better resource to focus on tighter sanctions where appropriate, particularly with those advertisers who pay lip service to the Codes.
Despite its engagement with brands, Guy Parker emphasised that the ASA is not aiming to keep anyone happy: it is a regulator and that sometimes means unpopular decisions, even when the ASA is evolving to meet the challenges of a new advertising landscape in order to ensure sustainability. Maintaining independence and integrity is crucial if society – and the government – is to accept and trust the effectiveness of self-regulation.
With recent changes in data protection law and Brexit looming, it’s more important than ever for the ASA to hold its head high as a competent and proactive industry regulator that people trust. Guy confirmed that Brexit will not affect the ASA’s involvement (as a founding member) with either the European Advertising Standards Alliance (EASA) or the International Council for Ad Self-Regulation (ICAS).
There is a definite undercurrent of ‘use it or lose it’, in pushing to improve the ASA’s visibility and standing in order to counteract the risk of a statutory regulator being imposed. How best to reach all those now undertaking advertising activity though, with limited resources, is the challenge the ASA faces.
The More Impact Online strategy is available online.