Marketing Ad Spend Brand Strategy

How brands advertising on the internet can stay on the right side of the ASA


By John McCarthy | Opinion editor

October 8, 2021 | 8 min read

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is the UK body tasked with policing ads running across a broad array of media channels. During its long life, it has evolved several times to meet modern demands. Now The Drum speaks to Guy Parker, the ASA’s long-serving chief executive, to understand how it is tackling advertising rule-breakers on the internet and social media.


The ASA’s remit has grown in recent years

ASA timeline

Firstly, a brief history of the ASA:

  • In 1962, the Committee of Advertising Practice established the ASA as the independent advertising regulator under a new code of conduct.

  • From 1974, the body was funded by an optional levy (0.1% on ad costs) to help it expand.

  • In 1988, the ASA received new powers to take tougher action on marketers who made persistent incorrect claims.

  • Big change came in 2004 when the ASA assumed responsibility of regulating all TV and radio ads to co-regulate with Ofcom.

  • From 2010, video on-demand (VOD) services and the huge landmass of online advertising were added into the mix.

  • The organization was driven by public complaints (or sometimes rival marketers playing legal tit-for-tat). Complaints would be investigated and ads in breach of the rules could be banned. A common complaint is that this can be a slow process. But understandably so – in 1962 it received around 100 complaints. In 2020, that was 35,000.

  • And that brings us to today. The organization has had to evolve to become more selective, tech-savvy, co-operative and agile to handle all that’s thrown at it.

Defining internet ads

Parker believes the ASA represents “a relatively rare example of effective self-regulation.” But it has to be adaptable if it is to be effective.

Advertising on social media and the internet is the latest thing to moderate. Even the social giants have struggled with content moderation. The ASA need only worry about the ads and branded output. Its online remit is broken into three sections: website claims, paid ads on platforms and influencer/native ads. These now comprise about “40% of the ASA’s work.”

Any advertiser will be familiar with the ASA adjudications and rulings, but that element is becoming increasingly less important. Parker says: “In the last ten years, we have consciously been moving away from such a focus on reactive complaints casework toward more proactive regulatory project work, where we use a broader intelligence than just complaints from the public to decide what the issues are that we need to respond to.”

The ASA, he says, has “given itself permission to be pickier about where and how we act” to avoid being “dragged into issues that aren’t the biggest deal for the UK public.” Its goal is to serve the public interest and ensure continued trust in the advertising industry, not ensure that every ad on the internet is compliant (although it says 97% are).

Tackling internet ads

The ASA has placed a greater emphasis on technology, surveillance and partnerships with the big tech players. Before the added responsibility of monitoring the internet, the ASA was merely studying the tip of the iceberg – by all accounts quality ads with a budget behind them running on relatively trusted mediums.

Despite the expanded landmass, the organization is “not that different in size to 10 years ago.” But the roles are different. “We are much more efficient than we were. We now have, for example, data science capability. We didn’t even know what data science was 10 years ago.”

It has to monitor huge swathes of digital real estate. These processes are automated when possible.

First, there’s what he calls CCTV-style monitoring, where a neutral web user profile is created to check around 1,000 websites and video channels several times a day. The goal is to ascertain how certain profiles are targeted, and whether that’s done in a lawful manner.

One vital group to protect is children. Virtual avatars are created just to see what children are seeing on the internet. By creating a digital profile that emits the signals a child’s account would, the ASA automatically screenshots ads appearing on more than 250 pages across the web. The goal is to ensure alcohol, gambling and junk food ads are kept from younger audiences. The ASA believes there isn’t a huge volume of brands playing fast and loose in this space.

Automation is also taking the legwork out of checking website claims. Each sector has its misleading claims tropes. Practically, this means entering all scam keywords and inputting a series of web pages to scan. Regular offenders will be monitored this way.

Then there are the influencers. People, like you and me (in some ways), who leverage fandoms to spotlight brand partners and products. Often as newcomers to the advertising space, there’s a huge job ahead to inform them of ad rules. Part of that is platform-led. And part of it awaits the maturation of the space. The ASA has started naming and shaming the worst offenders. A lot of them are reality TV stars, and Parker says: “There’s a bit more of a sense of them wanting to make hay while the sun shines. They’ve had their 15 minutes of fame and need to make the most of it ... they are more likely to not know or follow the rules and they’re not always particularly well-served by their talent agencies.”

Compliance is improving, says the ASA. The talent is getting better at labeling posts as ads, but there are concerns that certain formats enable non-disclosure, such as ephemeral posts in Stories.

And then there are the tech giants themselves that host all of the categories the ASA will police. As primarily ad-funded businesses, it’s in their interest to provide a trusted environment for brands. Parker points out that Google and Facebook have long been involved in the ASA system and that it has a “positive relationship.” They’ll help ensure any non-compliant ads are taken down, but Parker is making a “strong case for greater transparency and accountability for the role that they play in upholding the ad codes.”

He’s developed a framework called the Online Platform and Network Standards that would “put in place principles that apply to the platforms and networks in the UK.” Parker would like to see each of the social networks present in the UK to report the rates at which they can regulate their ad platforms in a more formalized manner.

It could take time. While tech companies have a reputation for being fast and agile and a “startup mentality ... that’s not always true. In global businesses, these things don’t happen quickly.”

“When it comes to ad regulation, because of our standing in the world, we maybe have an easier time of it than some other organizations. The tech companies recognize that what happens in the UK often gets rolled out and happens around the rest of the world before too long.“

Despite the extensive ground covered, there remain gaps. It is striving to tackle scam ads (ads not made by legitimate advertisers) as part of a coalition.

There are political ads that remain out of reach for the regulator, but there are calls to ensure politicians play by the rules they expect others to. Parker concludes: “There’s a bit of an irony there – politicians expect businesses to comply with the ad codes, but the main political parties and campaign groups aren’t yet ready to subscribe to them.“

Check out the ASA codes of conduct here.

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