Given that online adverts made up 88% of all adverts where action was taken by the ASA in 2017, it is unsurprising that the regulation of online advertising is central to the ASA's strategy for the next 5 years.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) launched its five-year strategy at a conference it held in Manchester in November. Headed 'More Impact Online' the ASA's new strategy focuses on making the regulation of online ads stricter and explores the ways in which the ASA can harness new technology and build on relationships with online platforms to achieve this aim. Given that online adverts made up 88% of all adverts where action was taken by the ASA in 2017, it is unsurprising that the regulation of online advertising is central to the ASA's strategy for the next 5 years.
Tackling the online 'Wild West'
The ASA is particularly keen to tackle the perception that online is a 'Wild West'. With consumer-targeted scams, fake news and data breaches regularly hitting the headlines, the ASA has acknowledged that there is general level of consumer mistrust in the online world, and is seeking to ensure that the advertising community does its part to combat this. Accordingly, whilst online-only assets may have historically been seen as lower risk for many businesses (i.e. due to their transient nature and the fact that they may not be as high-profile as TV or OOH ad campaigns) it is clear that they will be more heavily scrutinised going forwards.
So, how does the ASA intend to realise its online ambitions?
Collaboration and buy in. The ASA is pushing for the entire industry (from big brands, to micro and SME businesses and even individual influencers) to all do their part in upholding advertising standards to help ensure that confidence in the self-regulatory system is maintained. The ASA also confirmed that it will look to collaborate further with online platforms to explore ways that these platforms can assist in protecting the public from irresponsible advertising. Monitoring social media for comments on advertising was put forward as a possible avenue to assist the ASA in obtaining consumer insight to help reach decisions on compliance.
Improving technology. The ASA is considering how it can utilise technology such as AI / machine learning / algorithms to proactively combat non-compliant online advertising e.g. using algorithms to proactively search the web to identify non-compliant adverts which may breach the CAP Code. This would represent a huge shift in the way that the ASA currently tackles non-compliance and, if implemented successfully, will help address concerns that the ASA's approach can be akin to a game of 'whack-a-mole" with some non-compliant advertisers.
Simpler services. The ASA will explore whether its processes can be simplified and made more user-friendly. For example, the ASA are already considering ways to improve the competitor complaint process and are exploring easier ways for consumers to report non-compliant online adverts to them (i.e. as an alternative to the traditional formal complaint route).
Sanctions. The ASA are seeking to improve their sanctioning of non-compliant advertisers across all areas of online advertising. This would suggest that the trend of broadly framed assurances recently being sought by the ASA is set to continue.
Hot topics on the ASA agenda
What is also clear is that some of last year's hot-topics will continue to be a focus for the ASA in the future - with child protection, influencer marketing, gender stereotyping and IoT all receiving a mention at the conference. In particular:
Child protection. The protection of children is high on the ASA's list of objectives for 2019 and beyond. The ASA will continue to focus resource to ensure that child exposure to age-restricted ads in sectors like food, gambling and alcohol is limited. This is hardly surprising at a time where areas like HFSS advertising are receiving increased legislative scrutiny and the ASA is under considerable pressure to demonstrate that the current rules are effective in this area.
Native, influencer and affiliate advertising. Following guidance published at the end of 2018 (developed in conjunction with the Competition and Markets Authority), the ASA will endeavour to raise awareness of regulation in these areas and the consequences of non-compliance, particularly amongst individual influencers who may not have previously been aware of requirements of the Advertising Codes and consumer law when posting content on their channels.
Voice, facial recognition, machine-generated personalised content and biometrics. These areas were also identified by the ASA as presenting labelling, content and targeting issues. In 2018 we saw the first virtual-assistant related complaint to the ASA which concerned a customer's Amazon Echo Dot accidentally interacting with an Amazon TV ad. Although the complaint against Amazon was ultimately not upheld, as our homes become even smarter, it is likely that we will see further adjudications concerning virtual assistants and smart devices.
Gender stereotyping. The ASA re-emphasised its commitment to developing standards on gender-stereotyping in advertising as it is concerned that harmful stereotyping of gender roles or characteristics in adverts, e.g. depicting women as being solely responsible for cleaning the home, restricts the choices, aspirations and opportunities of children, young people and adults. Since launching the More Impact Online strategy, the ASA has issued a regulatory statement on Gender Stereotypes in Ads which should be read in conjunction with previous ASA guidance in this area.
The More Impact Online strategy shows clear intention by the ASA to regulate current and emerging forms of online advertising more strictly (and recognition by the ASA that it will need to adapt to fulfil this ambition). It therefore follows that brands will need to be even more diligent when advertising online and will need to continue to pay close attention to ASA announcements and CAP guidance on emerging online advertising spaces. In terms of the ASA's intention to collaborate further with online platforms, this presents an opportunity to develop an online regulatory climate which both protects consumers and allows more freedom to compliant advertisers.