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Dodgy advertising claims are nothing new. At least there’s protection if you see misleading or dishonest claims in the print or broadcast media – you can complain to the Advertising Standards Authority, the independent regulator with the power to stop false advertising in its tracks.
Problem was, if you read any untruthful claims on a website you didn’t have a cyber-leg to stand on – until now.
Advertising Standards Catch Up With the Web
From the 1st March 2011 the ASA will begin regulating all marketing communication by UK companies on the web. This will protect the consumer but also, of course, means businesses will have to exercise much greater vigilance over web content. These new regulatory powers are not just targeted at the wildly outrageous claims; simple carelessness could get you into hot water. So what should businesses focus on to make sure their online marketing is fully compliant?
This is the most obvious area for any business. Make sure your claims are watertight and your offers aren’t misleading. Making observations about competitors could now be a minefield, so if you do, for instance, compare your product with another, make sure every aspect of the comparison is fair and accurate. If you carry testimonials, make sure you can prove their authenticity; if you claim your product can save the customer money make sure you have the specific evidence and if you promote a limited-time offer, make sure it doesn’t continue throughout the year!
There has been huge growth in this sector of online advertising but the danger is that to catch a reader’s attention sometimes companies opt for edgy copy. You have the briefest of spaces through which to capture a prospect and it can be tempting to lure people into clicking with statements that might not bear much scrutiny. It doesn’t matter if you clarify on the site itself – the brief ad must stand in its own right.
Here’s the biggest area of concern for companies. Third party sites which you control, even if unpaid for, are still your legal responsibility. It would seem obvious that messages posted by you or your employees on your own social media site would be subject to official scrutiny from the ASA. Indeed, some companies have already encountered trouble from unwise postings by their employees. However, comments made by the public on your social media sites must also be considered. The ASA notes about user-generated content (UGC):
“The ASA is likely to take a very different view of a consumer’s positive comment that has been posted, by the website owner, in a prominent way on the front page of its website, than if that same comment appeared within the context of a consumer message board moderated for harmful and offensive language or images only.”
Nevertheless, ‘likely’ is an interesting term that also follows on from their main statement:
“Assessing whether UGC amounts to a marketing communication falling within the new remit must be considered on a case-by-case basis.”
So, if a member of the public posts something that you imagine would be acted upon by the ASA if you had made the comment yourself it would perhaps be wisest to remove it. Your decision to leave such a comment on your site could be viewed negatively. Even if you didn’t claim that, “Eating Maxwell’s sausage rolls gave my gran a stroke!” it might be deemed that leaving such a claim on your own bakery’s Facebook page amounts to an endorsement and as such falls foul of the rules.
We are still in the thick of the social media marketing revolution but this is the moment to take stock of your campaigns, strategies and controls. “It wasn’t me, guv!” isn’t going to cut it in this new regulatory era.
A Good Thing
This sounds like hassle but overall the new remit can only be for the benefit of business. Companies can themselves be misled by online marketing and of course the honest business will always be tearing its hair out seeing customers lured into the clutches of competitors making misleading statements. The ASA will now be able to act on these things.
The ASA claims it is not aiming to bash businesses, just to ensure good practice. To that end they are not about dishing out fines (though extreme cases from the offline world have made it to court). Instead they set out the following as likely plans of action should businesses at fault fail to comply:
An enhanced name and shame policy – providing details of an advertiser and the non-compliant marketing communication on a special part of the ASA website. Removal of paid-for search advertising – ads that link to the page hosting the non-compliant marketing communication may be removed with the agreement of the search engines. ASA paid-for search advertisements – the ASA could place advertisements online highlighting an advertiser’s continued non-compliance.
Also, they are keen to help. Find out more at ASA online, where you can sign up for their website audit service to advise you on any necessary changes to meet the regulations. You can also read the regulations in full at the CAP Code page.
Policing the net is, of course, a huge task but Google has already thrown its weight behind the initiative and it is a significant step in the right direction.
I should clarify that my opening claims were for illustrative purposes only and should not be read in the capacity of genuine marketing claims.
I should also offer my apologies to President Obama and my Aunt Nerys.
In fact, one of these two people is fictional. If you think you know who call our not-very-premium phone line now for a chance to win a fantastic holiday in…
Hmmm. Careful now.