Understanding the advertising codes that apply and the underlying regulatory framework is particularly important in the digital age and during this time of public health restrictions too, when consumers are spending more time on devices.
In a July 2020 report, the UK’s advertising regulatory body, the Advertising Standards Authority (the ASA), said that during the first UK period of coronavirus ‘lockdown’ there was a shift in the trends in advertising complaints away from outdoor media to online and TV.
The content of advertisements is regulated by a combination of legislation and industry self-regulation. The legislation that specifically governs this area is the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and the Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations 2008. These regulations are mirrored in the self-regulatory UK Code of Non-Broadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing (CAP Code), which applies to non-broadcast marketing communications in the UK, and the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising (BCAP Code), which applies to broadcast marketing communications in the UK.
In this guide, the two codes will together be referred to as the ‘advertising codes’. While they uphold similar standards, marketers should be aware of their differences.
The advertising codes are written by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and enforced by the ASA. These regulatory bodies are the “established means” under the Consumer Protection Regulations by which unfair commercial practices are controlled. In addition to the advertising codes, ads should be compliant with any legislation, regulation or government guidance specific to different sectors. Notable examples of sector-specific rules on advertising include those that apply to medicinal products or to gambling.
Scope of the codes
The CAP Code regulates non-broadcast advertising which includes advertising in press ads, ads online, claims that appear on companies’ own websites, marketing sent by post or email, or that appears on posters. The BCAP Code regulates advertising that appears on television or radio.
The ASA investigates complaints but also monitors ads in sectors where there are societal concerns about products, such as gambling and alcohol, and this has been extended to ads relating to Covid-19. The ASA considers a complaint based on whether the advert in question breaches the CAP Code or BCAP Code rules, rather than considering how many complaints it has caused. Therefore marketers should be mindful that it only takes one complaint for the ASA to investigate an advert.
If the ASA decides to investigate a complaint the marketer is given the opportunity to provide evidence to support the advertisement as published. If the issue is serious the ASA may require the marketer to stop airing or publishing the ad until the investigation is complete. The ASA prepares a recommendation when assessing the complaint and this is passed to the ASA Council for their consideration and final decision.
The ASA Council is the independent jury that is solely responsible for deciding if the advertising codes have been broken. The ASA Council makes rulings of the decisions they have made and these are published by the ASA on its website every Wednesday. The advertiser will be told in advance when the decision will be published. If it is determined that a rule or rules within either of the advertising codes have been broken the advertiser must either change the ad so that it is compliant or withdraw it. If a complaint is found by the ASA Council to be “not upheld” no further action is taken or required.
After a ruling the ASA checks ads to find out if the necessary changes have been made. On its website the ASA notes that the majority of marketers comply with the requirements of a ruling – where any do not or persistently break the rules, the ASA will take further action.
Sanctions for breach of the advertising codes
The bad publicity that comes from the publication of upheld complaints on the ASA website and other mainstream media is considered one of the most persuasive sanctions imposed by the ASA. However, the ASA has the power to impose other sanctions, such as arranging that advertisers are refused advertising space or imposing pre-vetting requirements on the relevant marketer’s ads. Trading privileges and other incentives available through advertising trade bodies could also be withdrawn. A further deterrent is the potential costs that could be incurred by marketers due to a non-compliant ad, whether through having to adjust the ad to the ASA’s requirements or through a loss of their initial marketing investment.
If advertisers do not work with the ASA and change or remove their advertising as required, the ASA can refer matters to the “statutory backstop”. Uncooperative non-broadcast marketers could be referred by the ASA to Trading Standards, which could begin court action, and uncooperative broadcast advertisers could be referred by the ASA to Ofcom which has the power to take regulatory action, including imposing a financial penalty.
The ASA – encouraging responsible advertising
It is the marketer’s responsibility to ensure their ad is compliant with advertising regulation. By having the advertising codes, rulings and further guidance on its website, the ASA gives advertisers the tools they need to do so. The overarching message of the ASA is that adverts must be “legal, decent, honest and truthful”.
Rule 1 of the CAP Code states that an advertisement must “reflect the spirit, not merely the letter of the Code” and “should be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and society”.
Below we have selected some of the core themes of the advertising codes to bear in mind:
Adverts must not materially mislead
The ASA will consider how the average consumer will interpret an ad in light of the overall impression the ad gives. Marketers must not mislead the consumer by omitting material information or presenting that information in an ambiguous way.
Marketers should ensure they can substantiate claims made in the advert and qualify those claims where appropriate.
Before distributing or publishing the advert, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that the consumer would understand to be objective. If any significant limitations or qualifications apply these must be stated in the marketing communications. Qualifications may clarify the claim but must not contradict the claim.
Comparisons should not mislead
Comparisons of products or services must relate to products or services that meet the same need or are intended for the same purpose. The comparison must objectively compare one or more material, relevant, verifiable and representative features of those products or services. Price comparisons must make the basis of the comparison clear.
The basis of ‘green’ claims should be made clear
They should not omit significant information, and absolute claims must be supported by a high level of substantiation. Unless the advertising states otherwise, the claims must be based on the full life cycle of the advertised product.
Prices must be specific
Claims on pricing should not mislead by omission, undue emphasis or distortion. The price given should relate to the product that is featured in the advert. Where a marketer quotes a price in their marketing, that price must include any additional charges that apply to all or most buyers such as non-optional taxes, duties and fees. Products must not be described as “free” if the consumer has to pay anything other than the unavoidable cost of responding and collecting, or paying for delivery of the item.
Co-written by Zara Early and Kirsty Hannigan of Pinsent Masons. Pinsent Masons regularly advises clients on advertising regulation compliance. More information is available on our advertising and marketing page.