The random thoughts of a sceptical activist

New ASA remit?

There has been a lot of speculation today after some media reports about Google and the ASA.

One article was in Revolution magazine: ASA imposes paid search tax to police websites and another in the Guardian: Google deal with Advertising Standards Authority will fund regulation.

It is not clear from either of these articles exactly what has been proposed or whether the ASA’s remit is to be extended.

Tantalisingly, Revolution says:

For the first time brands will have the content of their websites policed by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) under plans to extend the regulator’s remit to include all ‘online marketing’.

The ASA’s remit currently only covers paid-for online advertising in the UK, but this is set to change from the middle of next year when its responsibilities will be widened to include all forms of digital communications including branded websites and paid-for comment on blogs and social networks.

Search giant Google has stepped in to offer initial capital for the extension of the ASA’s self-regulatory remit. However, in the long-term the regulatory body is planning fund the initiative via a levy on paid-for search advertising. It is expected the ‘search tax’ will replicate the 0.1 per cent levy the ASA imposes on advertisers spending across traditional media.

…and the Guardian says:

The Advertising Standards Authority’s remit to police online marketing activities, including search advertising, is to be broadened following a deal with Google to help fund a new digital media regulation system.

The current situation is that the ASA’s remit includes advertising in newspapers, magazines, leaflets and paid-for third-party advertising on websites, but not for claims about products or services on a seller’s own website — this falls to the local Trading Standards.

We’ve seen countless times that the ASA have high standards for substantiation of claims made, but Trading Standards decisions seem almost arbitrary and certainly inconsistent across the country.

However, although the ASA are guided by scientific evidence, they operate a voluntary code (the CAP) and adjudications are not binding. For large companies, this is probably less of an issue because they (or their ad agency) would be only too aware of the repercussions of continuing to breach the CAP. Also, the ASA if funded by a levy of typically 0.1% levy of annual marketing budgets. However, smaller organisations (eg a local chiropractic clinic), who perhaps produce their own leaflets with a small local printer, may feel less obliged to bother with the CAP (even though the ASA provides a free Copy Advice service).

Trading Standards, in contrast, is funded by the taxpayer and enforces consumer protection legislation.

What will this new funding from Google mean? Will the ASA’s remit be extended to include claims for goods and services on a seller’s own website as tantalising suggested by the media reports? From experience, I didn’t want to place too much reliance on these reports, so I asked the ASA:

I’m sure you’ll be aware of reports in today’s press about a deal with Google to provide “vital seed capital” to get the ASA digital media regulation initiative off the ground.

Do you have any further details of what this initiative will involve (I can’t see anything on your website) and whether (as some have speculated) the ASA will investigate claims made on a seller’s own website? If so, what will be the impact on Trading Standards whose remit this is currently?

Any information on this would be appreciated.

Thirty-five minutes later came the reply:

Thank you for your email.

At this stage we do not have further details but once the industry has agreed the proposals, those would have to be formally presented to the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) for ratification and for the new rules and the necessary sanctions to be codified.

It’s a little too early at this stage to go into the detail of the new remit, but arguably the most interesting part of the proposal concerns marketing on websites.  One or two elements are still to be finalised and it is yet to be officially approved by the various bodies involved.

I am sorry I cannot be of more help.

From the recent experience of several sceptical bloggers, I would suggest that the ASA taking over the regulation of all product or service claims made on websites can only be a good thing in terms of protecting the public from the worst excesses of the AltMed pushers, but, to be able to do this effectively — to be able to properly protect the public from misleading claims — there has to be a system that is robust, based on best available scientific evidence, but one that also has teeth.

Will the ASA provide that necessary protection? As yet, we don’t have all the information, so we’ll need to wait for full details from the ASA.

4 Responses to New ASA remit?

  • More conjecture from me, I’m afraid, but I suspect the ASA will push for similar sanctions that exist for advertising, i.e. that they will request that claims be withdrawn, and should this not happen from the company itself, they will contact the ISP or possibly even Nominet. I suspect the only way this would be feasible, however, would be if they worked closely with TSOs, something they only do in exceptional circumstances with advertising.

    The CAP and BCAP codes are currently under review, and I’m assuming given that the ASA has been moving towards this for some time, that they will have been mindful of the new remit.

    Also, there is currently an issue with people direct mailing from abroad, where the ASA can make a request for particular mailouts to be withdrawn, but have no real power to stop it happening. Non-UK advertisers are a little less interested in complying. I’m not sure how the ASA will deal with non-UK registered websites making sales messages to UK citizens.

  • This could prove to be very interesting and it certainly sounds like good news, but it’s obvious we’re going to have to wait until the details are finalised and something is published in the codes or on the ASA website before knowing just how these changes will apply.

    It will be interesting to see what is meant by the term ‘Brands’. Although I’m just guessing, I think the changes will be more useful against actual ‘products’ (supplements & homeopathic remedies etc) rather than ‘services’ like reflexology & chiropractic ….. but will be very happy to be wrong on that!

    The implementation of any changes is some way off, but this is well worth keeping an eye on how it develops.

    Nice work Zeno for getting onto the ASA so quickly.

  • Skeptic Barista said: “Nice work Zeno for getting onto the ASA so quickly.”

    I’m waiting for my invite to their Christmas party…

    I think it is unlikely that this would only apply to products and not services, but, as you say, we’ll have to wait to see the detail of what’s finally decided.

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