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Will ASA guidelines spell trouble for your website?

Written by Brett Sidaway, February 24, 2011

Will ASA guidelines spell trouble for your website?

New regulations may spell trouble for your website?

In the UK, from March 1st, new regulations come into force that will affect every commercial website and all corporate social media – and might mean many businesses are in breach of stricter advertising regulations.

From that date the Advertising Standards Authority [ASA] will be responsible for monitoring digital advertising in the same way as they currently monitor TV, radio, press and billboard advertising. And by digital they mean websites and all social media like Twitter and Facebook Any “type of communication for a good, service, opportunity or gift that primarily sets out to sell something” will be covered under the new legislation.

Are you legal and honest?

The standards that such ‘communications’ must meet are apparently very simple – they are required to be ‘legal, honest, decent and truthful’ – but the issues are far more complicated. It looks as if ASA will consider all parts of a website as advertising, so all claims will need to verified and backed-up.

  • Claims about being the cheapest/the best/the only/No1 or leading…. will need to be proved
  • You will need to make sure special offers or discounts to be correct, and not misleading
  • All product descriptions and claims need to be true and verifiable

Watch out…

It only takes one complaint to trigger an investigation – and you can be sure your competitors will be all over your website. Things like Press Releases are outside their remit but my guess is that if they become part of the website the claims and substance of the press releases will be considered as a ‘communication aimed to…. sell’ Should you even have a website at all? Advertising tobacco is illegal so if you sell cigarettes or cigars online it’s possible even having a website is breaking the law. There are massive restrictions on alcohol advertising, too. And children are, rightly, a major concern for ASA – and the Government. The ASA states Even when ads are aimed at an adult audience, advertisers have to take great care to target them appropriately and not cause harm or distress to children.   For advertisers, read website owners. How will this impact on ‘sexy’ fashion, music and entertainment brands that kids are almost inevitably attracted to whether they are the target audience or not?

Is that tweet legal?

Social media is another area bound to cause difficulties. All the above requirements apply to postings, tweets and all commercial social media activity. So if you tweet and offer something as ‘lowest available price’ you will need to prove it. If you post that the first 100 customers get a free gift – make sure you have enough stock to meet your promise –and specify a time limit so that anybody reading the post several days later doesn’t think the offer is still open. Much more controversial is content posted by your followers and ‘fans’. The ASA says it will only rule on these if you include them in your website. However, if a customer posts an unverifiable claim about how brilliant your product is on your Facebook page and you leave it there for others customers to see, it’s difficult to think that the ASA will not consider that as part of YOUR advertising. What happens if these posts and comments appear as a feed on your website?  Again what happens if your Facebook page attracts followers under 18 even if you don’t target them?  This could well happen to gaming sites, for example. The ASA have included social media because it is something they consider them as ‘non-paid for advertising that is under the advertiser’s control’. Surely the point is that they are not under control; social media is a conversation and conversations are difficult to control.

More work for lawyers?

The ASA are honest enough to admit there are many grey areas that will become a little more clear-cut in the following months. They offer free help and advice including a website audit. And yet my first enquiry was greeted with the response ‘seek legal advice’ so it appears once again that the beneficiary of new regulation is the legal profession. Penalties are largely of the ‘slapped wrist’ variety with ‘naming and shaming’ being the no1 option.  The ASA are keen to keep investigations informal, but they can force the removal of paid-for web ads, and, I believe, will get major search engines to remove searches for offending websites of persistent offenders or post online warnings about the website content. Yet more uncertainty surrounds .com websites. Having a dot com won’t make you immune from having to comply, but if the .com is worldwide website from a non-UK based company based, how will ASA make the web pages for UK-users complaint in countries where they have no jurisdiction? Will .co.uk’s be unfairly penalised at the expense of their international competitors? Confused? I think it is just the opening of a regulatory can of worms that will impact on thousands of UK businesses. Opace Technology Solutions are a successful Birmingham Web Design company who specialise in delivering internet marketing services to clients, including SEO and social media marketing services support to help them on their journey to success. If you are looking for a company to oversee your website and social media activity, please don’t hesitate to get in contact.

Image credit – Rich Renomeron

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