What is the Advertising Standards Authority?
The ASA is the body that regulates both broadcast and non-broadcast advertising and is:
…the UK's independent watchdog committed to maintaining high standards in advertising for the benefit of consumers, advertisers and society at large.
The ASA is funded by a levy on display advertising space, but it is kept independent of advertisers by a separate body responsible for setting and administering that levy. They receive no funding from Government. The levy is the only part of the system that is voluntary: advertisers can choose to pay the levy, but they cannot choose to comply with the Advertising Codes or the ASA’s adjudications.
There are distinct parts of the ASA: the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) (collectively known as the Advertising Codes or CAP Codes) who write the advertising codes; and the ASA, who apply them.
The ASA also run the Copy Advice service that give rapid free advice to advertisers to help them from falling foul of the Advertising Codes.
How the ASA works
By educating and training advertisers, the ASA tries to prevent problem ads appearing in the first place. They also monitor advertising to ensure standards are maintained. But they also rely on the public submitting complaints about ads they have come across.
When a problem advert is identified, they will work with the advertiser to resolve the problem. If the advertiser agrees to withdraw or amend the ad, their work is done. If the advertiser challenges the complaint, the ASA may conduct a formal investigation and ask the ASA Council to rule on it.
The ASA Council is the jury that decides whether ads have breached the Advertising Codes. Independently chaired by Lord Smith of Finsbury, the majority of its members come from outside the advertising industry.
These adjudications are published weekly on the ASA's website. If a complaint is upheld, the advertiser must withdraw or amend the ad and not use the advertising approach again.
What does the ASA cover?
The ASA's remit includes:
- Magazine and newspaper advertisements
- Radio and TV commercials (not programmes or programme sponsorship)
- Television Shopping Channels
- Posters on legitimate poster sites (not fly posters)
- Leaflets and brochures
- Cinema commercials
- Direct mail (advertising sent through the post and addressed to you personally)
- Door drops and circulars (advertising posted through the letter box without your name on)
- Advertisements on the Internet, including banner and display ads and paid-for (sponsored) search
- Marketing communications on companies' own websites and in other, non-paid-for space under their own control
- Commercial e-mail and SMS text message ads
- Ads on CD ROMs, DVD and video, and faxes
- We regulate sales promotions, such as special offers, prize draws and competitions wherever they appear
This is fairly broad and covers just about any printed or broadcast advert as well as sellers' own websites, banner/third party ads, including marketing communications on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook (see below).
For further information on what the ASA covers, see: What we cover (our remit).
For further information on what the ASA does not cover, see: Areas of complaint outside our remit.
Most advertisers comply with ASA rulings but the ASA also have a range of sanctions available to them.
- All rulings are published online, often leading to bad publicity for the advertiser
- Media owners and broadcasters refuse to run ads that break the rules
- Poster advertisers that break the rules on taste and decency and social responsibility can be required to have their posters pre-vetted
- Removal of Royal Mail direct mail discounts
Although there is no legal weight behind most of the ASA's decisions, the sanctions ensure that adverts are either withdrawn or amended.
For further information on how the ASA controls advertising, see: How is advertising in the UK controlled?
For further information on the ASA, see: Who we are.
Extended digital remit
From 1st March 2011, the ASA's remit was extended to cover:
- Advertisers' own marketing communications on their own websites and;
- Marketing communications in other non-paid-for space under their control, such as social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
This means that they will accept complaints about misleading claims on a seller's own website, which will allow us to tackle much misleading information at the source.
In addition to the above range of sanctions, new ones will be available to the ASA:
- 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.
The extension in the ASA's remit was formally announced on 1st September 2010, six months before it came into force. This six months was a 'period of grace' to allow the ASA to conduct training for advertisers, but also to give advertisers time to make any changes to their websites. However, it is clear that many have either been unaware of the ASA's extended remit, or have chosen to ignore it.
For further information on the ASA's extended digital remit, see: Landmark agreement extends ASA's digital remit.
Copy Advice service
ASA guidance is fairly clear and should be comprehensible to most advertisers. However, the ASA also runs a Copy Advice service to help advertisers with potential adverts before they are published. It is a free service that can be used by any potential advertiser, although any advice given by the Copy Advice service does not necessarily mean that an advertiser would win if a complaint was made about the resulting advert: the ASA Council has the final say.
The ASA's CAP website holds the CAP Codes as well as many help notes on a variety of subjects. The ones particularly relevant to complaints about misleading health claims include:
- AdviceOnline: Therapies: Chiropractic
- Help Note: Health Beauty and Slimming Marketing That Refers to Medical Conditions
- AdviceOnline: Use of the Term "Dr"
- Help Note: Substantiation for Health, Beauty and Slimming Claims
- AdviceOnline: Substantiation
The ASA also include their adjudications as part of their guidance:
ASA adjudications provide important guidance to advertisers on how the Codes are to be interpreted. They act as a transparent record of our policy for consumers, media, government, industry and society at large on what is and isn’t acceptable in advertising.
The CAP Code states:
3.1 Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove all claims, whether direct or implied, that are capable of objective substantiation.
Relevant evidence should be sent without delay if requested by the ASA or CAP. The adequacy of evidence will be judged on whether it supports both the detailed claims and the overall impression created by the marketing communication.
This highlights several important points:
- That a marketer must hold documentary evidence before making any claims;
- That the ASA considers both direct and implied claims;
- That the ASA will consider both the detailed claims and the overall impression given by the communication.
Point 1 means that the chiropractor must hold the evidence at the time the claims are made and that they cannot be retrospectively substantiated or substantiated with studies published after the claims were made.
The ASA's guidance on Substantiation states:
Medical and scientific claims made about health and beauty products, including slimming products, food supplements and cosmetics, should be backed by evidence, where relevant consisting of trials conducted on human subjects (see Clause 50.1 (health and beauty products and therapies), 50.20 (vitamins, minerals and other food supplements), 50.24 (cosmetics), 50.26 (hair and scalp) and 51.1 (slimming)).
Specifically, the CAP states:
50.1 Substantiation will be assessed by the ASA on the basis of the available scientific knowledge
Additionally, Health Beauty and Slimming Marketing That Refers to Medical Conditions states:
Marketers should hold robust evidence for all claims.
All scientific knowledge should be taken into account and not just some evidence that happens to support a claim — it is the totality of good scientific evidence available that is important to the ASA.
From several adjudications, we have a very good idea of what the ASA considers robust evidence: controlled and randomised, methodologically sound clinical study or studies, which have been published in an internationally recognised peer reviewed journal.
If the advertiser doesn't hold that standard of evidence for claims they are making, why are they making those claims?
See this documentfor further information on acceptable evidence. (coming soon)
Making a complaint
See How to submit a complaint to the ASA for help in submitting a complaint to the ASA.
In broad terms, the following shows the various steps taken by the ASA in dealing with your complaint.
See Complaints procedures for information on how the ASA will deal with your compalint.