More impact online

Published on: 12 February 2019

Celebrating 100 years of consumer healthcare spotlight header image

I would like to start off by offering my warmest congratulations to PAGB on reaching its centenary milestone. By any measure, 100 years is a significant landmark; but, amidst the celebrations it’s easy to lose sight of what it took to get there. Institutions don’t survive and thrive for that long unless they’re effective. That means having a strong mission and vision, clear-sighted governance and an ability to adapt to change.

Guy Parker

All of which makes me reflect on the thinking behind the ASA’s new five year strategy and how we ensure we continue to be fit for purpose in delivering protections for consumers and business.

The focus of our strategy is on having more impact online. Why and how are we going to do this?

Ask a random selection of people what ‘online’ means, and you’ll probably receive a host of different answers. Defining what is a complex, dynamic and ever evolving space in which many of us now conduct our day-to-day lives and business isn’t straightforward. But from the ASA’s perspective it’s simple: ads wherever they appear online should treat consumers fairly and be responsible.

The facts are, businesses are increasingly advertising online, people are spending more time online, and the pace of change online is contributing to people’s concerns. All of which underlines why it’s imperative we focus on strengthening further our regulation in this space.

We have been regulating online ads in some form since the dawn of the worldwide web. Initially, we covered paid search, pop-up and banner ads and, as our remit extended to claims on company websites and in social media, so our workload and resources have increasingly been weighted online. Last year, 88% of the 7,099 ads amended or withdrawn following our action and two-thirds of the 19,000 cases we resolved last year were online in whole or part.

Our strategy sets out the steps we’re going to take to bolster our online regulation. Central to it will be making better use of technology. We will explore the use of artificial intelligence, both to help identify the advertising-related issues that are most important for us to tackle and to improve our regulation. And we want to be thought leaders in content and targeting issues relating to technological developments like voice, facial recognition and biometrics.

In all of this, the protection of young and vulnerable people will remain a priority. We will focus on limiting exposure of children to ads for age-restricted products like alcohol, gambling and less healthy foods. But, where appropriate, we’ll also consider lighter-touch regulation in line with our prioritisation principles. We’ll explore whether our decision-making processes allow us always to act nimbly, in line with people’s expectations, and judge whether it is proportionate or effective to always act when considering matters of offence caused by material on companies’ own websites.

In the current climate, online is often associated with concerns around privacy, child safety and criminality. It isn’t, of course, all bad, but these concerns about harmful content online are real, particularly when children and vulnerable people are the target. Witness the work of Parliamentary committees, which have explored whether greater controls online are needed, while the Government is also finalising its own Internet Safety Strategy. We’re watching the outcome of this closely.

Does the online environment present enforcement challenges? We’re open about the fact that, yes, it does. And not just for the ASA. Ensuring standards in this vast, fast-moving and sometimes unruly online environment is a challenge faced by regulators and governments the world over.

We’re up for that challenge. We already take meaningful action, within our remit, in tackling consumer harms online. As our strategy sets out, the next five years is about getting better at what we do, building on the foundations of what we’ve achieved so far.

Success will in no small part depend on the buy-in and commitment of our stakeholders. Social media firms, advertisers and businesses are an integral part of our self-/co-regulatory system and we will be reaching out to them to seek their support. As part of that, we will work more closely with the large online platforms so we help each other to protect people from irresponsible ads. We’ll seek greater buy-in from online-only advertisers, retailers, brands, micro- and SME businesses and the social influencer community, by highlighting the benefits of our regulation and being open to regulating differently.

Institutions like PAGB play a crucial role too, including by promoting our rules and guidance to their members. We value your ongoing support and your voice within CAP (Committees of Advertising Practice).

While we’re not losing sight of our role and responsibilities in other media, online is a clear priority. By having a clear vision and strategy and embracing change, we’re ensuring effective ad regulation continues in this space for years to come.