25th May 2022

ASA report shows focus on digital

The recently published annual report shows how the Authority is using tech tools to better tackle misleading and irresponsible ads and influencers


By JTS Staff
Journal of Trading Standards' in-house team
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Technology is transforming all our lives and as our Annual Report shows it’s also transforming how the ASA regulates misleading, harmful or irresponsible ads

False environmental claims, harmful racial and ethnic stereotypes and misleading cryptocurrency advertising are among the themes covered in the latest annual report from the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA).

The watchdog has also announced that it is using artificial intelligence to enhance its monitoring capabilities and take enforcement action against social media ‘influencers’ who fail to disclose when they have been paid to post advertising content.

The report gives a breakdown of the complaints and cases handled by the ASA over the past 12 months. In 2021, it received a record 43,325 complaints about 22,115 cases. Online advertising comprised almost half of all complaints (20,735) and almost two-thirds of all cases (14,558). Television advertising also made up almost half of all complaints (20,425) but only about a fifth of cases (4,802). Complaints about online influencers increased by 20% to 4,889.

During the 12-month period, 20,456 adverts were amended or withdrawn as a result of the ASA’s work. The Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP), which writes the Advertising Codes enforced by the ASA, delivered 866,145 pieces of advice and training to businesses.

The ASA is using artificial intelligence to capture and analyse all Instagram Stories produced by ‘high-risk’ influencers who are have been unwilling or unable to clearly and consistently label when their content is an advert. Using machine learning algorithms to automatically identify potential ads in these posts, the watchdog is harnessing image recognition and natural language processing techniques to categorise posts.

Repeat offenders who are unable or unwilling to follow the rules ‘will face an escalation of sanctions and enforcement action’.

According to ASA Chief Executive, Guy Parker, “Technology is transforming all our lives and as our Annual Report shows it’s also transforming how the ASA regulates misleading, harmful or irresponsible ads.

“As our world-leading use of artificial intelligence to help tackle misleading influencer ads demonstrates, we’re harnessing and increasing our use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to deliver tech-assisted and proactive regulation. It means we’re better able to respond to concerns and ensures we continue to provide a one-stop-shop for advertising complaints for the public and responsible businesses across the UK.”

For the first time, the ASA’s annual report also provides a breakdown of complaints by nation, giving a clearer picture of national differences alongside the overall complaint totals. The analysis reveals that proportionately, people in Scotland are more inclined to lodge a complaint while people in Northern Ireland and Wales are less likely to lodge complaints about ads.

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