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ASA call for evidence on recognition and labelling of online ads

Published on 11 April 2018

Do consumers have a clear understanding of the labelling used for online ads?

The background 


One of the fundamental rules of advertising is that ads must be obviously identifiable as ads.  For some time the ASA has been pushing hard for consumers to be able to distinguish between ads and editorial content.  They are increasingly concerned with the lines being blurred due to the rise in advertisers' use of online platforms and online content to reach consumers – using tactics such as native marketing (brand-generated content that looks at home in the context in which it is being viewed) and influencer marketing (paid-for content appearing in tweets, blogs, vlogs, etc.). 

The development

To combat this blurring, the ASA has in recent years issued multiple rulings calling out incompliant advertisers, and released guidance to assist those wishing to ensure compliance.  It has now gone one step further, issuing a call for research and evidence on consumer understanding of the labelling of online ads.  In particular, the ASA is interested in information regarding:

  • the level and type of commercial influence over editorial content people expect to be informed about, through an ad label or other method;

  • how people interpret specific labels (eg #ad and #spon), and the extent to which wording, placement, visibility and style might impact a consumer’s ability to identify an ad;

  • the extent to which some groups are more or less likely able to distinguish advertising from non-advertising content; and

  • current practices for the labelling of online ads (eg national and international examples).

Why is this important?

This call for evidence is a clear statement of intent from the ASA, reinforcing its general direction of travel when it comes to the regulation of online advertising.  A quote in an interview with Guy Parker, the ASA Chief Executive, on the new initiative really drives home the point: “social influencer and native advertising might be relatively new but the advertising rules haven’t changed – people shouldn’t have to play the detective to work out if they’re being advertised to.”

Following this initial process, and based on the information it receives, the ASA will commission its own research into public perception and understanding.  Depending on its satisfaction with consumer understanding of labels, it may choose to alter or strengthen the methods through which it regulates the issue.  If advertisers don't respond to what the ASA is calling its constructive, cooperative, guidance-based approach, it may need to take a harder line – perhaps even by formalising online advertisement rules into the CAP Code.

Any practical tips?

Until the ASA announces the outcome of its call for evidence and further research, continue to think carefully about any advertising labels used for online content.  In each case, consider whether the consumer knows they are being advertised to – is the ad obviously identifiable? If not, a label will be required, and it will need to be appropriate, unambiguous, noticeable and available to the consumer before they engage with the content.  Overall, err on the side of caution, and if in doubt…use 'ad'!