UK Advertising Watchdog Gains Power Over Misleading Adverts And Claims On Twitter And Facebook

From today (March 1, 2011), the UK Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) online remit has been extended to cover brands’ marketing claims on their own websites and in other ‘non-paid for space’ that they control, which includes Twitter and Facebook.

We already regulate internet ads in paid-for space, like banner ads, pop-ups and paid search results, but our new responsibilities mean that we now apply the same high standards to marketing communications on companies own websites and in other non-paid space they control, like Facebook and Twitter.
The UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising, which includes rules to make sure advertisements do not mislead, harm or offend, will be applied to all UK based company websites regardless of the sector or size of business or organisation.

In 2010, the internet was second only to television in total complaints made to the ASA – some 3,546 in total. However, the agency was unable to take action as more than half of these fell outside of its remit. Not no more.
The Telegraph adds:

In an effort to protect freedom of speech online the rules will focus on ads that sell products rather than journalistic and editorial content, the ASA said.
The watchdog will be able to demand the removal of paid-for links to pages hosting a banned advertisement, with the agreement of search engines.
It could also place its own advertisements online, highlighting an advertiser’s continued refusal to comply with a ruling.

The BBC notes that the ‘transient nature of online content’ could make the rules difficult to police.
“I could have an advert up on the internet for a week or for an hour, cause widespread confusion, get sales from that, and then withdraw it,” says Vincent-Wayne Mitchell, professor of consumer marketing at London’s Cass Business School.
“The only punishment that the ASA has is withdrawal, but I can have that as part of my own marketing strategy.”

User-generated content, such as comments left by customers on a website, will not be covered by the extended powers.
But the ASA said that such content could be examined if a company adopted it and used positive endorsements to advertise.

This part in particular could have a significant impact on the value of Facebook’s recently-launched Sponsored Stories ad platform for UK-based brands.
It will interesting to see whether the powers granted to the ASA in this extension to their online remit are actually (and realistically) enforceable, whether they’ll have the time and staff to go after everybody, or if only the biggest of companies need to be concerned. Of course, they’re already the most likely to be doing everything by the book anyway, so you might just find that all of those ads for white teeth and weight loss will still be with us for some time to come.