In 2018 we responded to concerns about potential problem ads appearing on "Content Discovery Networks". We undertook a project to examine the level of compliance with the rules and to make sure we had the right knowledge and relationships in place to effectively regulate them.
What are Content Discovery Networks (CDNs)?
Content Discovery Networks are ad networks which are responsible for the ubiquitous ad panels, or widgets, seen on many popular news and other editorial sites. They’re also known as Content Recommendation Engines. The ads within the panels often appear under headings such as ‘You may like’ or ‘From around the web’, and link through to a mix of content types, from editorial content such as articles or celebrity slide-shows, to ads for products or services.
Findings from monitoring exercise
The project team carried out a monitoring exercise, looking at around 250 ads on 20 of the most popular websites in the UK that host CDNs, on both desktop and mobile sites. We found that levels of compliance for CDN ads were generally good, although some areas where there was potential to mislead were identified, such as geo-targeted ads (these are ads where the location of the consumer is included in the headline claim e.g. “New Laser Eye Surgery causing sensation in Westminster”). A small number of non-compliant gambling ads were also seen. Overall however, the findings of the monitoring exercise were encouraging.
Nearly 30% of ads seen were for financial services, including PPI claims companies, funeral plans, and insurance products. The most common service advertised overall were ads for PPI claims. Other products advertised included hearing aids, motoring, laser eye surgery, dating services and gaming, and most ads for products or services were from UK based companies.
The majority of the ads were targeted at a general adult audience. However, a significant minority were targeted towards older people by virtue of the products advertised, such as hearing aids, life insurance, funeral plans and will writing services. We did not see any ads which appeared to be targeted in their content towards children. Apart from the appearance of the panels, there were not significant differences in ads between the desktop and mobile versions of sites.
Labelling and unclear identification of the ads was a potential area of concern, given the editorial (or ‘native’) style of many of the ads. An ASA project on the labelling and recognition of online ads is currently ongoing and will report later in the year.
Following on from the findings of the monitoring exercise, the ASA investigated a complaint about a CDN ad using geo-targeting. The case related to a geo-targeted ad for funeral plans which included the claim “Caernarfon: 1000s of Over 60s taking advantage of a new funeral policy”. The advertiser said that the place name in their ads changed based, at least in part, on the IP address of the reader. They weren’t able to supply any evidence that the funeral policy in question had been taken out by thousands of people in the Caernarfon area. The upheld ruling makes clear that advertisers should not use geo-targeting to attract the attention of consumers if it results in misleading claims appearing.
Working with ad networks
As well as carrying out the monitoring exercise, we also established new lines of communication and on-going relationships with the major CDNs operating within the UK. We recognise that working together with online ad platforms is key to continued improvement of online ad regulation. As part of our new five year strategy ‘More impact online’ we have stated our intention to continue focusing on inappropriate targeting and misleading content. Working more closely with large online platforms is also a major aspect of our new strategy, to better protect people from irresponsible ads. We will therefore continue to seek to work more closely with online ad networks, including CDNs, to help ensure online advertising is effectively regulated.