With any complaint the ASA receives, our focus is on providing a proportionate and fair process for all involved. We don’t play a numbers game – just one complaint can prompt us to take action if there appears to be a problem under the advertising rules.
We take all complaints seriously but we look at whether or not the rules have been broken rather than simply basing our decisions on the number of complaints an ad might prompt.
We accept complaints from both the public and the industry. We protect the anonymity of members of the public who lodge complaints with us unless there is a good reason to reveal their details and we have their permission to do so (e.g. they want their name taken off a mailing list). If a complainant is someone acting in an official capacity, for instance they represent a competitor of the advertiser they’re complaining about, we will require their organisation to be named.
Complaints are assessed against our prioritisation principles to determine the most appropriate course of action. Under these principles we will:
- consider what harm or detriment has occurred or might occur;
- balance the risk of taking action versus inaction;
- consider the likely impact of our intervention; and
- consider what resource would be proportionate to the problem to be tackled.
We will contact the advertiser whenever a complaint indicates that an ad might have broken the rules, but may not start a formal investigation into every case.
It’s worth noting that around 80% of complaints don’t raise any problems under our rules, allowing us to resolve the issue without the need to take action against an advertiser.
How long does the process take?
We try to resolve complaints as quickly as possible, but we have a duty to make sure
our investigations and decisions are thorough and robust. Straightforward issues, where we don’t think a complaint raises an issue under our rules can be resolved in a matter of days. When we need to contact an advertiser much will depend on the complexity of the issues and whether they agree to amend their advertising without a formal investigation. A small number of our most complex cases can take six months or more to complete if, for instance, we need to appoint independent experts to help us assess evidence.
Communications during the process
Our Complaints Team will analyse your enquiry. Firstly, we will establish whether the issue raised falls under our terms of reference. We will then assess the concerns against the advertising rules using our prioritisation principles as a guide. This will decide what action we should take. We will always let you know if our assessment indicates that you have raised an immediate problem under the advertising Codes or if your complaint is to be investigated under formal procedures. We will also let you know if your complaint is instead submitted to the ASA Council for a view on whether further investigation is warranted. Otherwise, we will keep a record of your concerns and feed them into our intelligence gathering, but you may not hear from us beyond an acknowledgement that we have received your complaint.
While a large volume of complaints about an individual ad can signal that there might be an issue we need to look into; we have to take care not to be influenced by coordinated complaint campaigns which can result in thousands of people contacting us through online petitions or sending us complaints via ready-made email templates.
For complainants, this may mean we’re unable to write back to everyone individually with updates or the final outcome. But rest assured – if there’s a problem, we’ll still act.
Complaints about broader advertising practices across specific sectors place a greater demand on our resources and we sometimes need to deal with these cases in a different way, for example, by adopting a ‘project’ approach. This allows us to look at a number of issues under the umbrella of a few ‘master’ complaints. ASA rulings apply to all advertisers, so we can use them to bring a whole industry or sector in line with the rules.
For advertisers, we’ll help by offering advice, guidance and may sometimes work with trade bodies, to communicate as widely as possible the outcome of our project work and what it means for their sector. We’ll also monitor if affected advertisers are sticking to the rules and take further action if there are any continuing problems.
If a complaint is about an ad that originated from a country outside the UK, then it will be treated as a cross-border complaint. This means that the ASA will refer the complaint, through the European Advertising Standards Alliance (EASA) where possible, to the regulator in the country where the ad originated. Like other complaints to the ASA, cross-border complaints are handled free of charge.
We do our best to resolve complaints about ads from countries without EASA links, yet are still directly targeting UK consumers (i.e. a .co.uk website, displaying UK contact details / prices in £’s). However, our powers are limited when it comes to ads outside our jurisdiction.
Complaints process timeline
1. Assessing the complaint
When a complaint is logged, we will confirm that is has been received. All complaints are carefully assessed against the Advertising Codes. If we decide that there may be a problem with the ad, we will confirm that we are taking the complaint further. In some circumstances, we may seek a view from the ASA Council in our assessment of whether further investigation is warranted. Where relevant, we may be able to suggest another organisation that can help.
2. Resolving complaints
Sometimes we’ll decide that there’s a problem under the rules but that the issues raised don’t call for us to investigate. In these cases we’ll write to the advertiser providing appropriate guidance. As we prefer to work by persuasion and agreement, some complaints can be resolved quickly and informally by working with an advertiser to have an ad changed or get a name taken off a mailing list. Informally resolved cases aren’t put before the ASA Council, so no ruling is published.
If it’s not that simple, or we think there’s potentially a serious problem under the rules, a formal investigation may be needed. We’ll write to advertisers and other appropriate parties, e.g. ad agencies, the media that broadcast or published the ad and the clearance centre. We’ll explain what the complaint is about, which Code rules are relevant and ask for a response, together with evidence. If the potential problem is serious, we might ask the media to limit or stop airing, publishing or distributing the ad, until the investigation is complete.
4. Advertiser responses
Advertisers and broadcasters are required to reply to us in writing within seven working days, or five working days for cases involving issues of harm or offence. If they don’t reply promptly they can automatically be found to break the Advertising Codes or, if applicable, their broadcast licence, so it’s important to keep to the deadlines we provide.
5. Advertiser claims
If there’s a claim that needs to be proven, we’ll ask advertisers to provide evidence. We don’t accept references to, or extracts from studies. Instead, advertisers need to provide copies of full studies with the relevant sections highlighted. They should explain clearly why their submission is relevant to the investigation. We’ll never unreasonably restrict opportunities for them to make their case. However, we may, in exceptional circumstances, limit submissions if they’re unjustifiably lengthy or repeat the same arguments.
We then assess the ad against the rules in light of the responses. If we need more information to make our judgement, we may seek further clarification, evidence or independent expert advice, or in exceptional circumstances we or one of the parties to the complaint might request non-binding industry advice from one of the CAP Panels. We’ll draw up a draft recommendation outlining the complaint, the advertiser’s response, our assessment and a recommended course of action. We’ll give all appropriate parties the opportunity to comment on the accuracy of the draft. This is not our final ruling. The recommendation will be sent to the ASA Council for their consideration and final decision.
The ASA Council is the independent jury that is responsible for deciding if the Advertising Codes have been broken in a formal investigation. The Council will consider the recommendation but is free to come to its own conclusion. The Council receives recommendations via an online system and makes rulings on a weekly basis. If there is a division of opinion amongst the Council, the members will vote on whether to uphold or not uphold the complaint the week after the recommendation was first sent to them. A minority of cases (generally those that are likely to have the greatest impact on the advertising industry) are discussed at a face-to-face Council meeting.
Parties are told when the case is going to Council and as soon as Council has made its decision, we send the final ruling and publication date, under embargo, to all relevant parties.
8. Ruling publication
We publish our final rulings every week on our website. We let complainants and advertisers know in advance when the case will be published, however the details of the case must be kept confidential until publication. We also make the findings available to the media. If the rules have been broken, the ad must be changed or withdrawn. If the complaint is ‘not upheld’, no further action is taken.
9. Independent Review
In certain circumstances, advertisers or complainants can request a review of a ruling. Both sides have 21 days (from when they were informed of the ASA Council decision) to ask the Independent Reviewer of ASA rulings to review the case. But they must be able to establish that a substantial flaw of process or ruling is apparent, or show that additional relevant evidence is available. If the Independent Reviewer accepts a request for a review he can ask the ASA Council to reconsider its ruling.
10. Monitoring compliance
We check ads to find out if the necessary changes have been made following a ruling. The vast majority of advertisers stick to our rulings. We work closely with the advertising industry to act against the few who do not. Broadcasters cannot air ads that break the advertising rules and we ask publishers not to print ads that break the rules.
Most advertisers act quickly to amend or withdraw their ad if we find it breaks the rules, and we act against the few who do not. Ultimately if advertisers and broadcasters persistently break the Advertising Codes and don’t work with us, we can refer them to other bodies for further action, such as Trading Standards or Ofcom.
Further information:Making an ad complaint guide.pdf
Complaint about your ad guide.pdf
Non-Broadcast Complaint Handling Procedures
Broadcast Complaint Handling Procedures