Marketers on alert after ASA online remit extension confirmed

Companies have six months to make sure that their online communications meet regulatory standards after the Advertising Standards Authority announced its remit for regulating digital marketing will be extended from 1 March next year.

The Committee of Advertising Practice’s (CAP) code for non-broadcast advertising, sales promotion and direct mail is to apply to all marketing communication on companies’ websites and via social media platforms such as Facebook.

Websites will have to comply with rules on misleading adverts and social responsibility, as well as codes governing the protection of children amid growing political pressure. The new Government has vowed to “crack down on irresponsible advertising and marketing, especially to children”.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt (pictured) says the move will “give greater protection to children, young people and vulnerable groups”. CAP says it will “deliver more comprehensive consumer protection online”.

The rules will apply to communication “directly connected with the supply or transfer of goods, services, opportunities and gifts, or which consist of direct solicitations of donations as part of their own fundraising activities”.

However, there is no definition of what constitutes “marketing communications”. An ASA spokeswoman admits there will be “teething problems” and some “grey areas”, for example what is editorial and what is marketing, but adds that objections will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis using a “principles-based” approach.

Until now, the ASA’s online remit and CAP’s codes have covered only paid-for marketing communications such as pop-up and banner ads, paid search and viral ads. The watchdog has set a six-month “period of grace” in which it will “conduct training work” to raise awareness and educate business.

Ian Twinn, director of public affairs at the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA), says companies will need to spend that time checking what is in breach and what needs changing. He adds that though many large companies will already be compliant, smaller advertisers may need guidance.

The watchdog is bracing itself for a significant rise in complaints after estimating that it has received 4,500 complaints since 2008 that fell outside its remit. It will pay for the extra workload by collecting a 0.1% levy on paid-for ads appearing on internet search engines through media and search agencies.

New sanctions include:

  • Ads that link to the page hosting the non-compliant marketing communication may be removed with the agreement of the search engines.
  • The ASA could place advertisements online highlighting an advertiser’s continued non-compliance.

New exclusions include:

  • Investor relations including information covering financial reports and board changes.
  • Heritage advertising. Old ads “of iconic material of value and relevance to the brand owner’s website”.

Existing exclusions already in place include:

  • Classified private ads.
  • Editorial content.
  • Political ads.
  • Marketing communications in foreign media.

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