ASA reveals it vetoed a record number of ads in 2016 as it underlines challenge of regulating advertiser-owned content

An online campaign from Gucci was banned by the watchdog last year for featuring models that were too slim

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned or requested alterations to almost 5,000 ads last year, marking a record number for the watchdog.

The figure also sees a 5% increase on action taken in 2015, with the regulator saying that over the past five years a large portion of the complaints it received were in relation to ‘advertiser-owned’ ads – ie content featured on companies' own websites, YouTube channels and social media platforms.

Last year, the body banned spots from a number of household names like Kellogg's, Channel 4 and Heinz. Audi and Gucci were also among those reprimanded, with the latter having a campaign spiked for featuring an "unhealthily thin model".

Overall, the ASA received 28,521 complaints in relation to 16,999 ads in 2016 and in total it reprimanded 28.4% of the complaints. However, despite the number of complaints decreasing year-on-year by 3.5% the overseer has highlighted the difficulty it faces policing brands in an “increasingly interconnected world.”

2016 marked the fifth anniversary of the ASA and the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) extending ad rules to cover advertiser-owned content, and in the last five years the ASA said it has resolved 41,383 complaints about 36,872 online brand-hosted ads.

Since 2011, these ads have accounted for one in three grievances raised with the ASA, with 88% of complaints expressing concerns about ‘misleading’ campaigns – which by comparison is something cited in just 73% of overall complaints across media.

“We now encounter messages from brands and organisations on websites, on social media platforms, in vlogs, blogs, postings and tweets and even in sponsored online articles,” said Guy Parker, ASA chief executive. “Despite the rapid technological change, one thing has remained constant: we expect to be able to trust every ad we see or hear. Of course most stick to the rules, but we’re adapting to the increasingly interconnected world in which we live to tackle those that don’t.”

He continued: “Whether it’s responding to complaints, undertaking project work, conducting enforcement activities or, crucially, providing advice and training to the majority who want to get it right, we’re delivering. With important projects successfully completed, a record number of ads amended or withdrawn and a record number of pieces of advice and training delivered, we’re making ads responsible wherever they appear.”

Since the ASA took responsibility for advertiser-owned slots five years ago it has made a number of landmark rulings including banning a YouTube campaign from Oreo for failing to clearly signpost it was paid-for content.

In recent months, CAP has turned its attention to regulating influencer marketing with a series of new guidelines for brands and talent, but some industry names have argued the recommendations still do not provide enough clarity or incentive to ensure an even playing field.

In 2016, the ASA and CAP took down a total of eight websites between them, and ensured one successful prosecution of an alternative therapy provider following referral to its legal backstop, Trading Standards.

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Rebecca Stewart

Rebecca Stewart is a reporter at The Drum. Based in London, she writes news, analysis and features around brand marketing and digital innovation. She has interviewed key figures from the likes of Airbnb, Amnesty International, Unilever, Facebook and Spotify, as well as covering international events like Ad Week Europe, Dmexco and Ciclope.

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