UK ad watchdog says tech is helping it remove 346% more dubious ads a year

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) resolved 36,342 complaints about 22,823 UK ads in 2020, according to its annual report.

In total, the UK regulator has overseen the withdrawal or amendment of 36,491 dubious or misleading ads last year; an increase of 346% on 2019.

The watchdog put this surge down to an investment in automated digital tools which have been helping it to monitor content online. It also said that complaints about online ads now far outnumber grievances raised about TV campaigns.

UK ad complaints in numbers

  • The ASA’s report comes two years deep into a five-year plan designed to help it better police digital advertising.

  • Since 2019, the regulator has been experimenting with a series of AI tools to help it identify and remove offending ads online.

  • Online cases made up 61% of all cases and nearly half of all complaints across media in 2020 – representing 17,379 complaints and about 14,512 cases.

  • However, TV complaints did increase by 43% (echoing increased viewership during lockdown). However, they still only made up one in five of all cases, garnering 14,211 complaints about 5,070 ads.

  • Ryanair’s ‘Jab and Go’ ad has drawn the most ire in the last 12 months. It also scooped the crown for the third-most complained about ad of all time, clocking 2,371 complaints from the public. The campaign encouraged viewers to book their Easter and summer holidays, wrongly suggesting that passengers were free to ’Jab & Go’ after receiving their vaccination.

  • Complaints about influencer posts – an area the ASA is coming down increasingly hard on – decreased by 8%, but still made up almost a quarter of online cases.

  • The health and beauty sector had the most ads amended and withdrawn. In major part this was due to projects which pro-actively went after botox ads on platforms like Instagram, and a proactive approach to banning ads selling ‘super immune system booster’ IV drips which claimed to ‘cure’ Covid-19.

Technology ‘transforming’ regulation

  • The ASA has overseen the withdrawal or amendment of 36,491 dubious or misleading ads last year; an increase of 346% on 2019.

  • It credited this boost in part to its adoption of innovative technology and data science, as well as working closely with partners and including other regulators and online platforms, which helped it ‘tackle irresponsible ads at pace and at scale’.

  • Over the last year, the ASA has been continuing its automated monitoring sweeps of children’s online media to identify and tackle age-restricted ads that have been irresponsibly placed or served.

  • At the height of the pandemic, it was also forced to fast-track harmful and irresponsible ads relating to coronavirus. This included making rulings within a few weeks of complaints and launching a ‘quick report’ function online, which allowed people to submit quick objection to ads containing scrupulous health claims.

  • After using tech to sweep Instagram influencer posts, the ASA also found that some 24,000 ads had gone live undeclared. In line with this, the regulator put influencers on notice in March 2021 with a harsh warning to make sponsored posts easily identifiable to consumers.

  • On top of all this, it’s been engaging social networks like Facebook to explore how to ‘strengthen’ its regulation online and hold platforms to account on the role they play in being open and transparent about their own moderation policies.

  • The ASA’s chief executive, Guy Parker, said that despite the “huge challenges” of the last 12 months, his organization “doubled down” on protecting children and people in vulnerable circumstances.

  • “We smashed our previous record of ads amended or withdrawn. We’re exploring holding online platforms to greater account for their role in upholding responsible ads online and we’re running important projects on the environment, racial and ethnic stereotyping and body image.

  • “In all of this, our increased use of technology is transforming the way we tackle harmful and misleading ads and helping us to better protect people.”