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A summary of the ASA Annual Report 2019

Published on 07 August 2020

What are the key points arising from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) 2019 annual report, published on 3 June 2020?

The annual report

The ASA highlighted three key themes in their 2019 report, as follows:

    1. using Technology and working with online platforms
    2. prioritisation and partnership working
    3. protecting vulnerable people.
Key notes in the report include:

  • The ASA launched an Avatar Monitoring which analyses online ads using “avatars” that mimic the browsing of children and young people. This has allowed the ASA to catch careless targeting by gambling operators and brands promoting high fat, salt or sugar foods.
  • It focused on prioritisation, partnership working and process improvement, achieving targeted reduction in rulings, in particular by reducing formal investigations into non-sensitive website advertising by small businesses and prioritising an “education first” approach to resolving lower detriment cases.
  • It also piloted a systematic approach to tackling pricing issues by a big online retailer, supporting additional verification of reference prices to improve the quality of pricing information displayed to consumers. 
  • It won two out of two judicial reviews, involving CityFibre and Actegy.
  • It is rooting out new ways to tackle scam ads more systematically. Successful delivery of the ASA strategy will involve working more closely with the platforms, combining their substantial investments in ad review systems with ASA independence, regulatory expertise and ability to build positive relationships between stakeholders.
  • It noted the six strands of their strategy: People, Online, Effectiveness, Buy-In, Enforcement and Independence. It noted it will work with online platforms to protect people from irresponsible ads, as well as deliver regulatory projects on ads that cause the most detriment to people.
  • Other key activities demonstrating performance against the ASA’s objectives include setting up an ASA/CAP online forum with representatives from online platforms and networks to help improve regulations of online ads. 

Using technology in the workplace

  • The ASA has been using avatars to monitor age restricted ads. This has helped them monitor, for example, online ads for high fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) food and drinks. The ASA identified a number of ads for HFSS products were served in children’s online media, in particular YouTube videos aimed at children. 
  • It enforced a Botox ads ban. A sector wide compliance project in partnership with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) occurred. Over 12,000 problem posts were removed from Instagram in the first quarter of monitoring. 
  • It is using Brandwatch, a social intelligence tool, to strategically monitor ad content online. Using Brandwatch, the ASA can observe trends across a range of online content, such as gender presentation in ads, and also look closely for individual breaches of the advertising rules such as unlabelled ads from individual influencers. 
  • It is working in partnership with the major ad platforms and networks, and has developed a Scam Ad Alert system to share information about paid-for scam ads. This system allows ad networks to respond quickly to remove them and prevent similar ads appearing. 
  • It has been working closely with brands and influencers to ensure that they know when to label their ads eg creating a “cheat sheet” for Love Island contestants. 

Prioritisation and partnership working

  • By implementing an “education first” approach, the ASA resolved a significant number of claims seen on the websites of SMEs without employing a lengthy investigation process, particularly where issues related to harm and offence. 
  • It has issued advice notes for minor breaches for SME website claims. These give details of why the ad was in breach, and how to amend it. 
  • It has been working in partnership to tackle misleading pricing references. 
  • ASA rulings give the HMRC leverage to crack down on misleading tax avoidance schemes also. 

Protecting vulnerable people

  • This includes working with advertisers to create responsible ads for cosmetic procedures, such as working with MYA to ensure the focus of their ads did not imply that aspirational lifestyles can only be achieved through cosmetic surgery. 
  • 2019 further saw the first results of a new rule banning harmful gender stereotypes in advertising. There has been CAP guidance published that outlines scenarios that would be considered problematic regarding gender stereotyping.
  • The ASA has been working on banning vaping ads on Instagram – in December 2019, the ASA ruled that e-cigarette ads posted from a public Instagram account were not consistent with the restrictions on E-cigarette advertising on the media, setting a new standard for the industry. E-cigarette brands are required to make their Instagram accounts private so their posts could only be seen by those who actively chose to follow them. Separately, Instagram has decided to remove vaping products from certain aspects of their platform.
  • In April 2019, new guidance on gambling and the protection of children and young people came into effect. It adds to the existing guidance of targeting of ads, covering all media including social media and other online platforms. The guidance provides details of unacceptable types of content, including use of popular celebrities and characters for children.
  • The ASA has been monitoring the TV ads that children can see, including alcohol, gambling and HFSS food and drinks ads.
  • It provided a summary of their complaints and cases; in context. Namely in 2019, the retail sector had the most ads amended or withdrawn. 
  • – 8,881 ads were amended or withdrawn in 2019, an 18% decrease on 2018 but the second highest total ever.
    – Almost 3x as many online cases were resolved as TV cases in 2019. 
    – Trends show that complaints about influencer posts made up more than ¼ of all online complaints. 
    – There was a 13% decrease in retail cases, though an 8% increase in leisure complaints.
    – There was a 36% increase in food and drink complaints, though an 18% decrease in business cases. 
    – Over ¾ of non-broadcast cases concerned potentially misleading ads, compared with just over 1/3 of broadcast cases. 
    – 3% more complaints were resolved than in 2018. 
    – Four out of six turnaround KPIs were met. 

Why is this important?

The ASA has a six-strand strategy and has been looking at ways of improving efficiency. It has been using AI and innovation to assist in ensuring that ads are compliant, such as the use of avatars and collaborating with platforms to remove ads in breach of the CAP Codes. It has been implementing technology to monitor ads and has enforced bans such as those against Botox ads. 

As such, in 2019, the ASA resolved 34,717 complaints relating to 24,886 ads, 70% of which were potentially misleading. In addition, it resolved 4,469 own-initiative compliance cases resulting in 8,881 ads being amended or withdrawn. 99% of formal cases were enforced. 62 sanctions were applied leading to compliance, and only nine advertisers needed to be referred to Trading Standards for further action.