On a British Retail Consortium webinar in the midst of the lockdown, Guy Parker, Chief Executive of the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority, updated retailers on the ASA’s strategy and priorities, and how these are being affected by COVID-19. 

While there were no great surprises, the session served to remind advertisers that the regulator will continue to focus its resources more on online advertising, and on ads which pose a risk to vulnerable members of society, in the coming months and years.  While COVID-19 means that some of the ASA’s projects will be delayed, the pandemic and the response it requires also galvanise and add additional impetus to certain aspects of the ASA’s strategy.

Five Year Plan

The ASA’s five year strategy 2019-2023, “More Impact Online” (previously reported here), responds to the ever-increasing use of online advertising, a phenomenon accelerated by current social distancing measures.  It includes a range of developments, from how the public report breaches, to developing the approach to prioritisation of cases.  The strategy is about procedural improvements and prioritisation; it does not for example call for changes to the substantive rules governing UK advertising.

One focus is improving how the public report on non-compliant advertising, to encourage a wider cross-section of the public to report.  One of the ASA’s plans to encourage younger people to interact with them is to introduce new reporting methods.  The ASA is now trialling a streamlined reporting form, to report COVID-19 related non-compliant ads, as an alternative to a more formal complaint.

The ASA is also increasing its proactive monitoring of non-compliant ads, and is deploying new technologies to do this effectively online.  This includes using avatars, which simulate the profiles of children of different ages, and can then be used to monitor the advertising to which children are exposed across hundreds of websites. Avatar monitoring was used to produce last year’s ASA report on HFSS ads and children, and its use indicates that online ads for age-restricted products and services such as gambling, alcohol, and foods high in fat, salt or sugar, will be submitted to greater scrutiny going forward.   

Highlighted Areas of Focus

Guy Parker highlighted three particular current areas of focus.

1: Protecting the Vulnerable

The ASA is concentrating its resources on non-compliant ads which are likely to harm the most vulnerable in society, and gave alcohol, HFSS, influencer advertising and gambling ads as particular examples.  This will come as no surprise to those following the ASA’s case and publication output over the last year.  We should expect to continue to see tough rulings in this area, drawing on data on likely exposure and potential for harm.  This focus is also driving the ASA’s approach to COVID-19-related ads, where the ASA is, for example, acting quickly to stop ads for PPE products which exploit vulnerable consumers’ fears of infection (see here).

2: Prioritisation and Using Partnerships to Regulate Online

Given the ever increasing number of potential cases to investigate (resulting from escalating numbers of complaints, and the use of new monitoring intelligence sources), the ASA has had to prioritise.  It has reduced the number of formal investigations it pursues, and moved to an  “educate first” approach, of simply notifying first time offenders in less serious cases. 

The ASA is also seeking to maximise its impact by working in partnership with other regulators and enforcement agencies.  Guy Parker gave the recent example of collaborating with a retailer’s primary Trading Standards authority, to successfully resolve systemic reference pricing issues, leading to tens of thousands of reference prices being changed.

3: Online Platforms 

The ASA have been working with Google, Facebook and other platforms for over a year, on initiatives to improve ad compliance on their platforms.  An improved scam ad alert system has been agreed, but work with the platforms is very much ongoing, with a key issue being the extent to which the platforms should be responsible for gatekeeping. Mr Parker indicated that ultimately (in a year or so’s time), if the platforms did not assume sufficient responsibility, the legislator might need to intervene.