Until recent years, advertising regulation in the UK has been largely reliant on a complaints based system to monitor advertising i.e. relying on complaints from consumers, competitors and consumer groups to flag non-compliant adverts. However, over the last two years, the ASA has significantly moved from a reactive role to a much more proactive stance thanks to the use of technology. This is demonstrated in the ASA's annual report, which details the number of ads that have been withdrawn or amended (AAWs) following ASA action during the period 2016 to 2021. In 2016, only 47% of 4824 ads were proactive AAWs detected through the use of technology. In contrast, in 2021, 89% of 20,456 ads were proactive AAWs.
The use of technology is changing the way in which the ASA works, allowing it to have a greater reach over non-compliant advertisers and influencers and regulate in a much more proactive and efficient manner.
How is the ASA using technology?
The ASA is using technology in a number of ways:
- A CCTV project using monitoring cameras on 60 online sites that are disproportionately popular with children to identify ads that should not be targeted at children e.g. for alcohol, gambling and products high in fat, salt or sugar;
- An age based Avatar project on websites and YouTube with mixed audiences to identify where advertisers of the relevant products should be focusing on adult audiences and moving away from targeting younger audiences; and
- Using data science and AI tools to scan digital content, including unlabelled influencer posts. The ASA has noted that it expects to expand its data science activities and will make more use of AI in the way it monitors compliance and handles complaints going forward.
What does this mean for advertisers and influencers?
In the past, due to the volume of online content and ads in the social media space, the ASA was unaware of many misleading ads where no complaints were raised. However, as mentioned above, a move from a reactive complaints based approach to a technology assisted proactive regulatory approach means that ads are more visible to the regulator and advertisers are at a higher risk of being held accountable for ads that infringe the advertising rules.
The ASA also continues to monitor and scrutinise the activities of influencers posting undisclosed ads:
- It uses technology to locate non-compliant ads by influencers, including an AI tool that can decide if a social media post by an influencer is likely to be an ad. The compliance team at the ASA then identifies unlabelled ads and focuses on enforcement in relation to the highest-risk content; and
- It has also introduced influencer-specific sanctions to address non-compliance and launched its own non-compliant social media page and on-platform targeted ad (OPTA) campaigns. The OPTA sanction highlights rule-breaking to the influencer's followers on social media.
In the annual report, the ASA noted that they "have more to do" in this area and are determined to scale up the monitoring work to identify trends that will assist them with taking enforcement action more efficiently.
This means that it is more important than ever for both advertisers and influencers to be aware of the advertising rules and ensure that the content they create is complaint.
Advertising checklist reminder
- Be honest and transparent with consumers
- Know and comply with the advertising rules
- Consider and apply any sector or product specific rules
- Consider whether your products and services are age-restricted
- Target the appropriate audience
- Don't mislead or exaggerate
- Ensure that advertising is identifiable as such and label as an ad, where necessary
- Know that the ASA could be monitoring your websites, social media posts and other advertising!
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