The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) monitors advertising to ensure that it is legal, decent, honest and truthful. Last year the ASA extended its online remit to cover marketing activities on an advertiser’s own website and in other non-paid-for space, including social media networking sites. Where advertising is not compliant with the relevant advertising codes then the ASA can take action to name and shame advertisers and to require advertising to be withdrawn and amended.

The advertising industry has been keen to see the ASA’s approach to regulating advertising through social media sites. This is because there are obvious restrictions on the advertisers where they engage with social media platforms such as Twitter, where it is impractical to include lengthy legal disclaimers. But some comfort has now been provided in the form of the ASA’s first decision dealing with advertising on Twitter.

In a high profile decision, the ASA has cleared Mars Chocolate UK Ltd of any wrongdoing concerning a series of celebrity endorsement tweets made by celebrities Rio Ferdinand and Katie Price, relating to the Snickers product.

The advertising campaign by Mars featured a series of celebrity tweets within the space of one hour. The first four teaser tweets contained unusual comments by the celebrities designed to increase attention to their Twitter stream, but no marketing content. The fifth tweet then showed a picture of the celebrity with a Snickers chocolate bar, and the comment “you’re not you when you’re hungry”.

The final tweet contained the hash tag #spon (being short for “sponsored”) and the Twitter username @snickersUK to identify the tweet as containing advertising material, but the first four tweets omitted these references. The ASA received complaints stating that these tweets were not obviously identifiable as marketing communications, as required by the advertising codes.

The ASA held that the first four tweets only became marketing communications at the point at which the fifth and final tweet was sent because these first tweets contained no marketing references, and that the inclusion of the #spon hash tag and the @snickersUK username in the final tweet was an acceptable manner in which to identify the whole series of tweets as sponsored advertising. Therefore, the advertising did not breach advertising rules.

This is good news for those engaging in advertising through social media, as it shows that the ASA is taking a proportionate approach to such activities. Colleges should continue to be vigilant to ensure that their online marketing meets applicable advertising standards.