COVID-19: our regulatory approach

On Tuesday, the Chancellor set out a range of measures to address the economic impact of COVID19, including a challenge to his Cabinet colleagues and business leaders and representatives to identify opportunities to support the most affected industries, including possible ‘regulatory forbearance’.

The ASA is very conscious that in this time of national crisis it must act sensitively and with due regard to the circumstances faced by businesses and members of the public.  In practice, this means applying a lightness of touch in some areas of our work, and, in other areas, an uncompromising stance on companies or individuals seeking to use advertising to exploit the circumstances for their own gain.

This approach reflects the prioritisation principles we adopt in the normal course of our work, but we understand that businesses and members of the public may want additional clarification about what this means in the context of COVID19.

It means a commitment to act quickly and robustly against ads that exploit people’s health-related anxieties and the difficult financial or employment circumstances that many people are now facing.  A refusal to tolerate ads that grossly undermine public health advice or that seriously misjudge public and minority group sensitivities.  And, an eagle-eyed diligence to spot any emerging advertising practices that grossly undermine the principles of fair competition generally accepted in business or where we see evidence of ads that irresponsibly take advantage of current retail conditions.

At the same time, it means being acutely sensitive to the existential threat faced by many businesses and to the plurality of media that depends on a healthy advertising market.  It means knowing when to reduce to a minimum our regulatory interventions and when to prefer an advisory approach over an investigatory one in circumstances where the advertising indiscretion is relatively minor or could not have been foreseen, e.g. the lack of product availability for reasons connected to COVID19.  And, most importantly, it means being open and understanding to the concerns of all of our stakeholders and not sticking rigidly to process and procedure where a tailored approach may be merited.

As a member of the Consumer Protection Partnership, we will work with its membership to ensure a consistency of approach, not only to areas where we can and should display ‘regulatory forbearance’, but also to areas where we must act decisively to ads that grossly undermine the UK’s response to the crisis we are facing.   

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