Comment: Advertising: Love it or hate it?

Published on: 9 March 2017


Guest blog from Guy Parker, Chief Executive, ASA


Advertising. It can be a bit Marmite. But love it or hate it, ads play an incredibly important role in driving healthy competition, informing (and sometimes entertaining) consumers and providing choice. In short, good advertising is good for business. And that’s a message I want to impress upon manufacturers, brands, advertisers and agencies in the OTC sector.

Guy Parker, Chief Executive, ASA

The ‘good advertising’ point is key. At the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), we work to ensure ads across all UK media are responsible. That means they mustn’t mislead, harm or offend. Ads that break the rules and treat people unfairly, erode trust and risk casting an entire sector in a negative light. Nobody benefits from that.

We prefer not to ban ads. Our focus, to borrow a phrase familiar to you in the OTC industry, is on prevention rather than cure. We’re intent on doing more to engage with and raise awareness of the ad rules amongst OTC businesses and to help you get your ads right. A good starting point is our commitment to working more closely with PAGB to share information and highlight regulatory or legislative developments that impact on responsible advertising in the sector.

We’re also focussed on providing external training and guidance to businesses on the advertising rules and how they apply. Our sister body, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), which writes and maintains the UK Advertising Codes, provides a comprehensive range of resources for advertisers, the majority of which are free, including a confidential and expert pre-publication Copy Advice service. You’re blessed with an excellent resource in the PAGB’s own pre-publication approval system for member companies’ consumer advertising, but check out CAP’s diverse and high-quality offering too.

One of the benefits of PAGB being a member of CAP is that OTC businesses have a voice at the UK Advertising Code-writing table. Representing your interests and raising issues and concerns feeds directly into shaping how the rules are developed and helps avoid unnecessary or wrong-headed regulation.

And to help ensure we continue to listen to you, PAGB has now joined our Stakeholder Engagement programme. Designed to bolster relations, it provides a direct and personal point of contact with the ASA so we can improve communication and address problems quickly and effectively. Our programme is open to companies too, so email my colleague Miles Lockwood at if you’re interested in joining. There’s no cost.

So, taking the temperature of the sector as a whole, what observations can I provide on the advertising of OTC medicines, food supplements and medical devices? Broadly speaking, complaint numbers are relatively low, which we can generally take as a good news story. Last year, we received roughly 1,800 complaints about 1,100 ads across the sector. That’s out of a total of around 30,500 complaints about 17,000 ads in 2016.

But it’s not a completely clean bill of health. We see and deal with recurring themes, some of them brought about by a lack of familiarity with or understanding of legislation that directly impacts on the kinds of claims that advertisers can make and the level of evidence that they have to hold.

For example, not all food supplement advertisers realise that they need to comply with the nutritional and health claims regulations. If it’s not an authorised claim, you can’t make it. Something else we’re seeing more of: just because a product has been classified as a medical device doesn’t necessarily mean that an advertiser won’t need to have robust evidence for any efficacy claims made. If we approach an advertiser asking them to back up their claims they should be able to; simply pointing us to the CE mark generally won’t cut it.

Even the biggest brands can, on occasion, err and the ASA will take action without fear or favour.

Then there’s the important reminder to think about whether your ad is likely to prompt concerns that it’s offensive or harmful. Many of you will be aware of the furore that surrounded the ‘beach body ready’ poster campaign by Protein World. While we didn’t agree that the ad was offensive (we actually banned it for making unauthorised health claims), the public backlash against it demonstrates the care advertisers need to take when using imagery or themes that many people won’t like.

Through closer working with PAGB, we want to encourage an increase in OTC businesses using our advice and training resources, familiarising themselves with the rules and seeking help at the earliest stage when devising their ad campaigns. Think of it as complementary to the PAGB’s approval system. Getting your ads right makes good business sense and can help you avoid having to take the bad medicine of an ASA investigation and potential ad ban.

Advertising: love it or hate it? When it’s responsible, we’re firmly in the ‘love’ camp.

This blog post first appeared in PAGB’s member e-newsletter Spotlight.