/ Technology

Can the ASA really police online marketing?

Collage of different poster adverts

What do Antonio Federici ice cream, Harpic toilet cleaner and Ryanair have in common? They’ve all had their knuckles rapped by the Advertising Standards Authority. Who else will join them now the web’s being audited?

From 1 March the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the UK’s independent regulator of advertising, has extended its remit to cover social networks and company websites.

This means Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are now under the ASA’s watchful eye.

Can the ASA keep on top of the web?

Don’t get me wrong; in principle I think it’s great that the ASA is extending its reach. Its new remit gives people greater protection, especially parents worried about their child’s safety online. But the practicalities seem daunting.

The ASA will now cover anything ‘directly connected with the supply or transfer of goods or services’ (or solicitations of funds in the case of charities). That means any online communications about selling a product are under the microscope, including company websites and social networks.

It didn’t seem right that a retailer could get picked up for a naughty television ad but get away with misleading info on a social network page – and let’s face it even your bank is on Facebook these days.

The advertising police

But I also have my reservations about whether the internet could – or should – be policed to this degree. If it was possible, wouldn’t schools have hand-sifted the bullies out of social networks by now?

Although the breadth of content the ASA will audit has changed, the principles of the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) code have remained the same. Advertising must be legal, decent, honest and truthful. Simple enough?

The ASA insists the move shouldn’t cause as much of a shock as rumoured. If companies understand how to behave within the code of practice in print and in broadcast, why can’t they apply the same principles to their digital presence?

For those already in the advertising industry, the principles of regulation online should be straightforward. But companies who have never paid for advertising before but have a simple website or small social media presence may have a limited understanding of the rules. They’ll need to get up-to-speed with the new advice, and chances are these guys won’t be top of the ASA’s priority list.

Screenshot the evidence

The dynamic nature of the web means what’s on a website one day isn’t so easy to find the next. Of course, the internet isn’t entirely fickle – I’ve been thrown many a time by Google ‘caching’ a page I thought I’d got rid of.

But still, it’s likely that a company will feel it’s easier to hide the evidence when it comes to their activity online. So the ASA is recommending that people keep a screenshot of any cases of possible malpractice so there’s a record of it.

I don’t envy the ASA with this task – in fact, I’ve got a lot of admiration for them taking this on. I’ll be interested to see whether, in reality, the process will be one of ‘leading by example’ and if naming and shaming bad practice will encourage the rest of the industry to clean up its act.


It would be a great start for ASA to deal with complaints about advertising by online retailers. It is easy to return goods to a shop and ask for a refund but buying goods online is a gamble.

ASA should insist that retail prices shown online include VAT and carriage.

I believe that ASA should tighten up on what they consider honest and truthful. For a start, get rid of ‘up to ….. ‘ claims and insist that these are replaced by the results of independent testing under normal conditions of use.