I’m very grateful for the opportunity to speak to you this morning.
I’d like to talk about who we are, the challenges we face and how we’re responding with our strategy to make every UK ad a responsible ad.
The ASA is your self-regulatory body. We’re the most visible part of the UK’s advertising regulatory system. A system which, for over 50 years, has pulled off the impressive feat of practising enlightened self-interest in the fascinating, fast-changing and extremely high profile business of advertising.
We’re still here, because brands believe trust in advertising matters. Serving the wider interests of the advertising industry by helping to ensure responsible ads makes sense because, ultimately, it serves your own self-interest by maintaining the trust of your customers and making your ad budgets go further.
So we’re funded by you the brands and brands, the agencies and the media write our mandatory Ad Codes through the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP), upon which ISBA has a key seat, your route into changing the rules.
We’re a self-regulatory system that’s proud to be a one-stop-shop. The Codes cover pretty well all advertising in all media, including on TV and radio since 2004 and online ‘owned’ advertising since 2011, by which I mean companies’ and organisations’ own claims on their own websites and social media spaces.
The ASA administers the Codes, in particular through the independent ASA Council, our jury.
We’re perhaps best known for responding to complaints from members of the public and publishing our weekly rulings against advertisers. We resolved over 37,000 complaints last year (a new record) but the number of individual cases was a little down, as were the number of investigations and rulings.
Don’t forget, we’re not launching an investigation and publishing a ruling in response to every complaint we receive. If we spot a dodgy-looking ad we’ll take action, but around 75% of complaints don’t raise issues under the Codes. With those, our role is to contact the complainants and explain why. So we’re also in the business of managing the disappointment of people whose views about the ads they’re complaining to us about are not views we think will generally be shared.
Our recently published top ten most complained about ads of 2014 showed that last year was the year social media came into its own, at least in terms of facilitating complaints to us. Encouraged by Change.org, a record 5,525 people complained to us about Paddy Power’s Oscar Pistorius ad in 48 hours. That shattered the pre 2014 record for most-complained about ad. And the second and third most complained about ads last year broke the old record too.
But don’t be misled by the total complaint figures: the ASA is becoming a more proactive regulator. I’ll talk about this later, but here are some figures that speak to my point:
Last year we resolved 1,600 compliance cases, another record. These are cases where we take action against dodgy ads, usually despite us not having received individual complaints. This is vital ‘levelling-the-playing-field’ type work, as any advertiser will know if you’ve found yourself in the unfortunate position of having been asked by us to change an ad when you know your competitors are using the same technique.
And what about pre-clearance and advice? Clearcast and the RACC, with whom we work very closely, do a good job on behalf of broadcasters pre-clearing TV and radio ads. Last year, we end up banning just 1 in a 1,000 of the TV ads seen by Clearcast. But there’s no pre-clearance elsewhere. So last year CAP delivered just under 200,000 pieces of advice and training, yet another record, helping advertisers in particular, but also agencies, other intermediaries and media owners, to get their ads right in the first place.
So where is the ASA at the moment?
In major part thanks to the long-term support of brands, we’re privileged to be a self- and co-regulatory body that - despite that rather unfashionable label - enjoys the general support of the public, civil society, the government and all the major political parties.
We have a good relationship with Ofcom, which recently renewed our license to regulate broadcast ads for another 10 years. And Trading Standards, which acts as our legal backstop on the non-broadcast side.
And we’re routinely backed by the Courts, which in judicial review after judicial review have recognised and endorsed our role administering UK-wide Advertising Codes, including in areas like misleading and comparative advertising, despite them also being covered by specific law.
But we can’t stand still. Here are six reasons why:
Number one, there’s a well-documented long-term decline in public trust in advertising and, as trust is falling, expectations are rising: expectations of businesses and expectations of regulators.
This, of course, was the theme of the Advertising Association’s LEAD 2015 conference a couple of months ago, when AA President Andy Duncan said:
“Society’s trust in us is going down… The danger is that trust in the whole industry gets chipped away. We have to work this out ourselves. Do we want to be reactive or proactive? That’s the big decision. I for one would like to maintain control of our industry”
Reason number two: technology is dramatically changing advertising, giving advertisers more ways to advertise and interact. Boundaries are blurring: between advertising and other content. Between advertisers and those advertised to. And between countries.
In keeping with a theme of today’s agenda, I’m going to highlight this by looking at vlogging.
Some of you might remember our ruling against Modelez in November. They’d signed up a number the UK’s best known You Tube stars to promote Oreos in videos where the stars took part in an “Oreo Lick Race”.
Now the Code says that if content is paid for and the advertiser controls the message, it’s an ad. And ads must be “obviously identifiable” as ads.
These videos were paid for and control of content rested with Mondelez. But they were in the style of the vloggers’ regular non-advertising fare. And despite Mondelez’s genuine and sincere attempt to ensure proper disclosure, we didn’t think it was clear enough they were ads. Statements like “Thanks to Oreo for making this video possible” weren’t sufficient and they weren’t always disclosed before viewers watched the videos.
We’ve had lots of contact with vloggers and bloggers since then. Almost all of them supporting our ruling. They say they want to play by the rules but they need more help knowing where the line is between advertising and editorial.
This is not an easy line to draw. PRs have long sent freebies to journalists in the hope of positive coverage. If the coverage that results is too often positive for comfort, we’d say it’s a case of bad journalism rather than a matter for the Ad Codes. Remember, the rules say there must be payment and control of content by the advertiser.
But the internet, and especially social media, has cranked it up a level. Word of mouth spreads virally online, making reputations precarious. Naturally, brands use the online spaces they own to advertise. But what if the line between owned and paid or owned and earned becomes blurred?
This Friday the ASA Council will, amongst other things, discuss scenarios like these:
A brand has a contract with a group of vloggers. The contract says the brand will pay a fee and provide free copies of their product to the vloggers, who are free to say what they like about it. This is like PRs sending free makeup to beauty journos, isn’t it? But hang on, there are contracts and fees here.
Or a brand has contacted bloggers and offered to send them on a short holiday, providing them with their branded equipment and organising activities to show it off. In return, all they want is for the holiday to be covered in blog posts with links to their website, along with some “nice” social media coverage on Instagram and Twitter. No contract or fee this time, and no mention of any control over the content of the blogs, but this a pretty specific arrangement and the equipment and holiday are worth a fair bit. Is this an ad or editorial?
One of the reasons why the vloggers and bloggers want help from us ought to make all of us in this room pause for thought. Some of them tell us it’s so they can push back against some companies and their PRs, who they say are pressuring them to hide the fact that their content is an ad.
Reason number three: the advertising market is expanding, but the ASA’s resources are finite. We think providing a complaints service remains important, but we’ve got to prioritise how we use our resources to focus on where our efforts will have the biggest impact.
And anyway, we know our complainants aren’t perfectly representative of the UK demographic. Look, I’m not saying they’re all disgusted and from Tonbridge Wells! But they are weighted towards ABC1s and London and the South East. Don’t tell me C2DEs and people from other regions aren’t faced with irresponsible ads too; they are, they’re just not telling us in the same numbers. And if we can identify through other means the issues that concern them, they won’t need to. This is about solving problems, it’s not about encouraging ever more complaints.
Reason number four: societal concerns about ads will continue to prompt demands for regulatory intervention, particularly when it comes to concerns about public health, children and the financially vulnerable.
Should there be a pre-9pm ban on TV ads for less healthy foods, alcohol, payday loans and gambling products and services? What about restricting ads for those products online, particularly in advergames and social media?
What do we do about companies like American Apparel, who have had a record of testing the system by advertising clothes on their UK website with overtly sexual images, sometimes featuring very young-looking women? Despite all the positive work we and the industry have done to protect children from inappropriate sexualisation in advertising, it only takes one highly irresponsible image for advertising to fall under the political spotlight.
How do we strike the right balance between a competitive and dynamic digital economy, largely funded by advertising, including online behavioural advertising, and people’s genuine and reasonable concerns about privacy?
To stay relevant we need to keep listening, respond to the evidence in a fair and balanced way, but we need to be bold too.
When I say be bold, I don’t mean we should knee-jerk to every call for a ban. I don’t mean we should move away for the evidence base.
But I do mean we should properly enforce evidence-based rules which are strict in the areas where they need to be strict.
Strict where they need to be strict recognises that even within the evidence-based envelope, there are shades of grey. It’s not a machine you feed arguments and studies into, press a button and out the other end comes the universally accepted evidence-approved outcome. Judgement comes into it. Reasonable people, seeking to be objective, can and do reach different conclusions on the same evidence.
Properly enforcing evidence-based rules, which are strict where they need to be strict, recognises that one of the challenges for the ASA is to avoid falling prey to status quo bias, where we too often interpret the arguments and evidence in such a way as to justify never changing our approach.
Or on the CAP side, for the industry to avoid setting the evidence threshold at the maximum level when restrictions are on the menu but at the minimum level when its liberalisation on the agenda. Get the balance wrong, and politicians will force through stricter rules themselves. To quote Andy Duncan again: “We have to do it, or it’ll be done for us”.
Reason number five: society is becoming increasingly diverse, with increasingly disparate views. Changes in the make-up of society challenge us as we continue to strive to reflect society’s views in our regulation.
But this is not an easy space to play in: one person’s reflecting society is another’s social engineering. And there’s the increasing scale of it too: many societal concerns are global now, think harmful drinking, global obesity and privacy concerns.
Some of you might know that the ASA and its overseas equivalents make up the European Advertising Standards Alliance, which I chair. We promote advertising self-regulation in Europe and increasingly the world. And we’re stronger because we also have the industry in membership, including the World Federation of Advertisers, of which ISBA is a key member.
The European Advertising Standards Alliance is a partner in the European Programme for Online Behavioural Advertising, which tells people about behaviourally targeted ads and gives them a chance to opt-out of receiving them. I spoke at a Safer Internet Forum in Brussels late last year, to an audience full of European teenagers. On the whole, they get the value exchange of free online content for targeted ads that rely on data. Despite that, it creeps them out. And if it’s creeping out digital natives, imagine how it makes the rest of us feel? But the OBA programme does provide a solution, and the teenagers I spoke to responded positively to the news that they could click on an icon in online ads and click through to a website, available in dozens of European languages, to find out about targeted ads and opt-out of them if they chose to.
There are other international programmes out there, of course. Some of you work for companies who are part of the European Responsible Marketing Pact, where the global alcohol companies are seeking to reduce ad visibility and appeal to minors. Or the EU Food Pledge which Simon mentioned, where the global food companies are seeking to reduce their advertising of less healthy products to under 12s.
But only the Online Behavioural Advertising Programme is plugged in to systems like the ASA. With the other two, important responses to important societal concerns are happening elsewhere and, for all the good they do, they don’t benefit from the comprehensive, independent underpinning of the ASA. Whether we’re talking at the Global level, the European level or the UK level, there’s a strategic risk here: the ASA system and our equivalents abroad risk becoming less relevant if we’re not a part of the response to these increasingly global concerns. And that will have consequences: on people’s trust in ads and on politicians’ support for advertising self-regulation.
My sixth and final reason is that, more than ever, businesses need access to professional help to keep up in a fast-changing world. You need timely and relevant advice.
Whether from our superb CAP Copy Advice team, which delivers fast, free and confidential advice on ‘ads in production’, responding to 95% of enquiries within 24 hours. Or from our Advice Online database, for example for advice on how to cover off promotional terms and conditions when your medium is Twitter - it is usually possible – or common pitfalls around celebrity endorsements. If you’re not already following @CAP_UK I urge you to do so: it’s your route in to a wealth of advice and training.
We’re responding to these six challenges with our new strategy, launched last year, which is all about us having more impact and being more proactive.
It’s is a five year strategy, running from 2014-18, which expresses our ambition to make every UK ad a responsible ad.
It’s in tune with the consistent view amongst all stakeholders we spoke to – including industry stakeholders - that we should retain a special focus on the vulnerable (the financially vulnerable, the elderly, children) and we should help maintain trust in ads.
The overriding messages were: understand advertising and new ad technologies better; understand your stakeholders better; have more impact – be faster, more efficient and more focussed; be more proactive; and be better known.
And so our strategy has those five strands: Understanding; Support; Impact; Proactive and Awareness.
We’ll continue to judge whether ads are misleading, harmful or offensive against the Ad Codes. And we remain committed to our central complaint-handling role of providing a simple and free means for people to register complaints about ads across all media - with the promise that none will be ignored.
But what action we take will be guided by new prioritisation principles, which we published just over a week ago.
• what harm or detriment has occurred;
• the likely risk of action versus inaction;
• the likely impact of our intervention; and
• what resource would be proportionate to the problem to be tackled.
Those principles will help us decide what resource we commit, or activity we undertake, in response to problems identified through complaints or some other source: research, perhaps, or intelligence from another regulator.
It’s not a good use of our time for us to spend months investigating complaints from Celtic fans about whether an ad by new Rangers football club was right to claim to be Scotland’s most successful club, on the basis that it had actually won nothing in its new guise.
Nor do we particularly want to be compelled by inflexible procedures into refereeing a spat between the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society and Manchester’s Hallé Concerts Society as to who actually is Britain's oldest symphony orchestra.
Our more proactive and targeted approach will allow us to have the biggest impact on the issues that matter most, benefitting the public, society and responsible advertisers alike.
Look, we’re not beginning from a standing start – we’ve increasingly been tackling problems like ticket pricing, letting agent fees and copycat websites at a sector level, rather than at an individual case level.
But expect to see a step change in our approach. Expect us to be more discriminating about some of the cases we take on. Expect us to use a broader base of intelligence to identify and then tackle problems with ads, rather than being so in thrall to our complaints postbag. And expect us to keep asking you how we can better understand where we should be acting. For example, we know a fair bit about vlogging and blogging now, but we don’t have all the answers to how best to regulate online and we’d like your help.
We’ve got a real opportunity here: it’s no coincidence that we launched our Having More Impact, Being More Proactive strategy shortly before the industry launched its new deal Responsibility Agenda. They’re not the same thing, of course, but they share a lot in common. They respond to many of the same challenges. And the engagement, support and commitment of brands will be central to the success of both.
Thank you for listening.