A boom in misleading ads promoting coronavirus cures and treatments online has led to big changes for the UK’s advertising watchdog – which has been forced to rethink its priorities quickly in light of the ongoing global pandemic.
Like many media regulators, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is often faced with criticism about the speed at which it makes decisions. In 2018, the self-governed industry body faced questions about why it had banned Christmas ads from Aldi and Poundland long after festive lights had been relegated back into dusty attics across the UK. More recently, influencers have suggested that ad labelling guidance for their nascent sector could be more robust.
However, as deceptive ads promising relief from Covid-19 (for which there is no approved vaccine or treatment) flood the internet the ASA has shown its agility; working with speed to adapt operations and procedures in order to target bad actors.
“Our response to the crisis has been to re-prioritise our work to spot and tackle companies or individuals seeking to use advertising to exploit the circumstances for their own gain. This includes ads that exploit people’s health related anxieties,” the ASA’s chief executive Guy Parker explained to The Drum.
This week alone, three medical companies using the pandemic to shift potentially dangerous products were hit with advertising bans.
The ads in question included Instagram and web promotions for IV drips that claimed to boost patients’ immunity to Covid-19. One, from a company called Cosmetic Medical Advice suggested that a 'super immune system booster' IV drip was an effective way to protect against viral infections and that the clinic followed the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Two others from Reviv UK and The Private Harley Street Clinic were also spiked.
As early as last month, the ASA targeted unscrupulous face mask vendors seeking to capitalise on health fears via a series of "alarmist" ads.
Typically, decisions on whether to even open an investigation into an ad that has drawn one or multiple complaints can take months. These are then passed on to the ASA’s council, who make a verdict on whether or not to uphold the grievance.
Now, this turnaround has been reduced to a few weeks thanks to a Covid-19 taskforce within the ASA that has been charged with coordinating incoming complaints and prioritising what needs to be fast-tracked.
The watchdog has also been working with partners – including the Competitions and Marketing Authority (CMA) and the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) – to “triage” consumer issues and to refer them to the body best placed to tackle the issues that are raised.
For its part, the government-run CMA has already issued a warning to retailers warning them not to cash in on the virus.
Like every other business, Parker highlighted how the ASA has had to change the way it works: “Thankfully we already had a sound IT infrastructure in place that has enabled all staff to ‘plug in’ to the database and our complaints management system remotely. From that perspective, when lockdown came, the move to working from home was relatively seamless.”
Platforms like Facebook, Amazon and Google have introduced their own measures too, including banning facemask promotions. Parker said the ASA had an "open lines of communications" with social media and tech giant partners.
"At the moment, like everyone else, they have their hands' full tackling problem Covid-19 related (non-advertising) content as well as the economic challenges that all businesses are currently facing. But they remain fully engaged in helping us tackle bad ads and taking action where we need their support."
Protecting consumers, and advertisers
But what happens to other complaints from the public in the meantime? Parker said that the ASA has already signalled through its Regulatory Forbearance statement that it will take a “lighter” touch approach to regulation in other areas. This means that so long as the pandemic rumbles on, it will be reducing regulatory interventions in circumstances where the advertising indiscretion is relatively minor.
“That’s important for two reasons, it bolsters protections for consumers around advertising practices that seek to profit in a misleading and unfair way from the crisis,” he said. “It also reduces the regulatory burden for businesses who are potentially facing an existential threat to their survival.”
On 30 March, the ASA launched a ‘quick report’ function that allows people to bypass their typical complaint process and submit a quick objection about potentially misleading or irresponsible ads selling coronavirus-related products and services.
Since this was launched, 99 complaints have been submitted in this way with more lodged via its longer complaints system.
In April, the ASA closed 20 of its total cases by issuing advice notices to brands responsible for breaching “low level” ad rules. One case was resolved informally, 109 were assessed and deemed not to have broken any rules, while a further 14 fell outside the body’s remit.
As of this week, the ASA has 13 Covid-19 investigations underway, which are being prioritised by its casework team.