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ASA Chief Executive, Guy Parker in conversation: Fireside chat highlights

27 November 2020

Earlier this week, Brinsley Dresden, Partner and Head of our Advertising & Marketing Sector Focus Group, welcomed Guy Parker, Chief Executive of the Advertising Standards Agency (“ASA”), for a virtual fireside chat to discuss how the ASA is facing up to some of the big issues in the advertising and marketing industry.

Using tech to tackle bad ads

As our guests settled in by their own virtual firesides (or more likely their laptop screens), Guy began by giving some insights about how the ASA is increasingly using technology to track down irresponsible advertisers.

By way of example, the ASA has developed a media monitoring platform that has most recently been used to tackle the “bane” of ads for IV drips and vitamin shots claiming to prevent or treat coronavirus. The software uses machine learning to identify and evaluate potentially illegal or misleading online advertising with increased efficiency. It then produces reports that allow the ASA to bring these ads to the attention of the platforms which host them.

A success story has been the curtailing of Botox advertising on Instagram. The ASA discovered that thousands of beauty salons were promoting Botox on Instagram in blissful ignorance of the fact that it is illegal to advertise to do so. They worked with trading standards bodies to get the message out that advertising Botox was illegal, and then used the media monitoring platform to send reports to Instagram to take down infringing ads. This was a good example of the ASA using tech in a systematic way, said Guy, rather than the “whack-a-mole” approach.

Reliance on the public to report scam ads remains high

Guy admitted that the ASA is currently over-reliant on members of the public alerting the ASA to the existence of scam ads through a quick reporting form. As well as needing more referrals from other regulators, Guy believes the ASA should continue to develop its tech arsenal, which includes a new Scam Ad Alert System, using software that filters ads and sends take-down or shut-down requests to those it deems to be scams.

However, Guy warned that scam ads remain a “tough nut to crack”, as scammers are incredibly tech-savvy and know how to game the system. He also pointed out that Big Tech’s scam alert system budgets surpass the ASA’s total annual budget, and even Big Tech have yet to produce a stronger system that works without relying to some extent on hiring people to sift through ads manually.

A government regulator wouldn’t “do as good a job” as the ASA

Brinsley raised the recent complaint to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (“MHRA”) about the Queen’s granddaughter, Zara Tindall, and her husband, Mike Tindall’s promotion of a coronavirus “passport” app. The MHRA swiftly passed the complaint on to the ASA. Brinsley asked whether there is an over-reliance on the ASA, and whether it would be better for statutory regulators to deal with egregious issues, with the ability to impose fines where there has been serious wrong doing.

Does Guy think that too much is expected of the ASA, and that an issue like this would be better dealt with by a government regulator with the power to impose fines as is the case in the USA? “No”, answered Guy, “because I don’t think they’d do as good a job”, pointing out that the situation, particularly with influencers, is much worse in the States than it is here, despite having an active government regulator.

Celebs are a bigger nuisance than professional influencers

Reflecting on the above, Guy made the interesting observation that many professional influencers rely on being “authentic”. These professional influencers are aware of advertising rules and are fairly compliant. Celebrities, by contrast, are often unaware of the CAP Code, or actively disregard it, particularly those who have appeared on reality TV shows and want to cash in on their 15 minutes of fame.

“It’s absolutely fine for celebrities to make money”, said Guy, “as long as the adverts are prominently labelled and not otherwise misleading or harmful”. The ASA have worked with ITV to produce cheat sheets for Love Islanders to ensure they understand advertising rules when they leave the island.

So, to any celebrities reading this, you have been warned! The ASA are actively monitoring celebrities on social media and, according to Guy, the Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) also have celebrities on their radar and have been doing some interesting data work to automatically capture posts.

The ASA can “live” with Instagram’s “Paid Partnership” feature

Brinsley pointed out that the ASA has given the impression that it isn’t a fan of Instagram’s “Paid Partnership” feature. Guy admitted that, in the past, the ASA have been cautious about the feature but said his view now is that “we can live with it”, pointing to the much bigger problem posed by unlabelled influencer advertising.

You heard it here first: the ASA appear at peace with the “Paid Partnership” feature, which may suggest we are getting closer to the demise of the “#Ad”, at least in the context of Instagram posts that use this platform disclosure tool.

A total ban on HSFF ads is “hard to justify”

The conversation turned to the government’s recently launched consultation on banning virtually all online advertising for High Fat Sugar Salt (“HFSS”) food products. Guy emphasised the increasing need to tackle HFSS but questioned whether a total ban was necessary.

Pointing to other problematic products such as weight loss pills and e-cigarettes, Guy thinks suggested that HSFF foods can be dealt with within the ASA system without curtailment of adverts to responsible adults. Before an outright ban, he said, we should at least consider whether there is a targeted and appropriate way to solve the problem.

Rumours of a “backstop” regulator for online ads

The DCMS will soon release their online advertising plan featuring recommendations on, among other topics, social media accountability and possible a backstop regulator to bring this about. Guy thinks that this will be OFCOM and is relaxed about the prospect as the ASA and OFCOM already work closely together on TV/Radio.

However, as Guy pointed out, it might take years to create a backstop regulator in this area, and in the meantime, the challenges posed by online advertising need to be tacked, “we can’t wait three years to deal with these challenges, we need to be facing them now and we are.”

The ASA is revisiting past decisions because of the BLM movement

As with many organisations around the world, this year’s Black Lives Matter (“BLM”) movement provoked the ASA to review its own practices, and as part of this it has revisited past decisions and queried whether they had been correct.

The ASA has also become an ally to the Unstereotype Alliance, a thought and action platform that seeks to eradicate harmful gender-based stereotypes in media and advertising content. This platform’s focus extends beyond ASA Codes, explained Guy, and looks at the entire marketing supply chain.

Guy also sprinkled a little seasonal hope, by pointing out that the Christmas ads this year appear to be more ethnically diverse than ever before.

Climate Change

Turning to climate change, Guy predicted that our children and grandchildren will be horrified by current attitudes towards excessive consumption: “they’ll look back and say, ‘how did you allow this to happen?’”

Brinsley referred to comment on the ASA’s website about the possibility of banning ads that promote excessive consumption, but asked, “how do we define what is consumption is excessive?” “It’s a million dollar question”, Guy echoed, and one that the advertising industry will struggle with. He did suggest, however, that ads showing someone driving a short journey on their own in a 4x4, or replacing a nearly-new flat-screen TV to buy the latest model, might fall foul of any such rule on responsible advertising in the climate change context.

What’s next?

Rounding off the discussion, Brinsley asked Guy what the advertising industry should look out for in the new year. Guy confirmed that enhanced regulation of alcohol (particularly in the context of hard seltzers which recently exploded in the US, to avoid another “alcopop-like” crisis), HFSS rules (to tackle the UK’s obesity struggle), and online advertising (to address the ever-growing issue of unlabelled influencer advertising) were all on the table. He also revealed that our relationship with our phones and addictive technology (e.g. endless scrolling features) were also on the ASA’s radar.

If you would like to receive a recording of the fireside chat, please email Lizzie Barnes.

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