Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) under fire for weak enforcement and for being in the pockets of the ad industry
A new, hard-hitting report analyses data on complaints to the ASA, revealing that only 22% of complained-about adverts are investigated and only 2% upheld, with the ASA often deciding not to investigate because it considers there is ‘no issue’.
The report, ‘Too close for comfort - A look into the Advertising Standards Authority and the case for more controls on advertising’ was published earlier this month by campaigning network Adfree Cities and argues for urgent reform of the ASA.
A major concern raised by the report is that the codes used by the ASA to decide if there is an issue with an advert are written by ad industry insiders.
Carla Denyer, Policy Coordinator at Adfree Cities, asks,
Drivers don’t decide their own speed limits, or set their own fines. Restaurants don’t decide their own hygiene ratings. So why are advertisers allowed to decide their own rules about what they can show us?
She goes on,
“Most of the advertising codes focus on whether an advert makes false claims about its product. But ads can do harm in other ways, by promoting socially or environmentally damaging products, indirectly misleading consumers (e.g. with unrealistic imagery rather than false claims), causing offence, or by perpetuating harmful stereotypes.
“Our report presents case studies of three adverts which received hundreds of complaints but were not upheld by the ASA. One is the MoneySuperMarket #epicsquads campaign which depicts a group of builders holding bats and chasing a group of men in hotpants and heels. Although the ad ends with a ‘joke’, the humour is premised upon and arguably reinforces the threat of violence to LGBT+ people, a protected minority. 455 complaints were submitted but no action was taken.
The study also points out that the advertising regulator’s lack of ‘teeth’ is a barrier to effective protection of the public. Unlike other regulators, the ASA has no power to fine companies that breach its rules by making misleading or offensive ads. The harshest type of sanction usually applied is to require the advert to be pulled - but because complaints typically take between 60 and 115 days to be processed, the ad campaign has often run its course before any action is taken.
Denyer explains: “In the case of a McDonald’s advert which tastelessly played on a family bereavement to sell fish burgers, even McDonald’s conceded to the complaints and withdrew the advert. But they faced no penalty despite the upset that the advert had already caused.”
Ralph Underhill, the report’s author, argues that there are several key ways to improve regulation of advertising in the UK.
We need a truly independent body to regulate advertising - one which is transparent, fair and involves the public in decision making.
“Advertising is pushed onto us without our consent. You do not ask to see an advert. So if you feel something in an advert harms you or others in some way, you should feel confident that there is a simple and easy way to do something about it. Currently, when the ASA’s rules are broken, the consequences are almost non-existent. It is time for meaningful change. We need a fair process that has real consequences for breaking the rules, involves members of the public in the complaints process, and is open and transparent for all to see.”
The report also calls for stronger rules, including on the environmental impact of adverts. And it concludes with actions that individuals and communities can take to push for reforms of the advertising industry.
Adfree Cities is holding a webinar on 24th March to explore how campaigners can both use and bypass the ASA to address issues of environmental degradation, mental health and climate breakdown.
Register at adfreecities.org.uk/asa