The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has this month launched the first stage of a project focused on misleading online adverts.

The research aims to explore people’s ability to recognise online ads as ads.

It has come about in response to a trend the advertising regulator has noticed ‘that has seen advertisers entering into commercial relationships with social media influencers and online publishers, the effect of which has sometimes been a blurring of the lines between advertising and editorial content’.

While this may seem more pertinent to consumer or lifestyle marketing – think, for example, of fashion bloggers singing the praises of a specific brand of jeans – it has relevance in professional or financial services as well.

Perhaps it’s even more important when it comes to the regulated financial services sector, where the strict financial promotions rules preclude a lot of approaches that would be ok in other industries.

Making online ads recognisable

One of the ways adverts are recognised, and identifiably different to other forms of content, is by being labelled as ads or promotions.

The ASA research includes a call for evidence which aims to find out more about what types of labelling helps people to understand when online content is advertising.

The trend towards relationships between influencers, advertisers and publishers has, the Authority says, ‘led to confusion and frustration amongst consumers, as well as uncertainty amongst influencers and online publications, about when and how content should be labelled as advertising’.

This blurring of the lines has made adverts less easily identifiable. This is problematic as – in the words of the ASA – ‘If people are unaware they are being advertised to, it is not only misleading but it also damages trust in advertising’.

Evolving digital platforms are changing ad regulation

Online content is proliferating, as are the channels where promotional activity may appear. Consumer expectations and the roles of advertisers, publishers and the ASA are changing in tandem.

Ad regulation needs to follow suit, as the visible differences between editorial and advertising become less obvious.

How does the ASA approach fit with FCA requirements?

If you already need to comply with Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) requirements, you’ll have to follow any new ASA rules on online ads as well as the financial regulator’s existing rules.

The FCA treats online content the same as printed material. This includes social media, where minimising compliance risk should already be a central component of your social media strategy.

When it comes to other online content – advertorials on publishers’ websites; blog posts; client surveys or other digital material – the standard financial promotion rules apply.

This means ensuring you get the requisite Compliance team sign off and making sure your copy meets FCA requirements around clarity, substantiating claims and making sure any reference to returns is compliant.

It means making sure you are following the FCA guidance on suitability, and including disclaimers with the required prominence.

All of this takes time – often in short supply when you’re trying to get financial promotions out the door. Make sure that your approvals process is as efficient as possible, perhaps exploring the potential for automated workflows to speed your processes and improve regulatory compliance.

What’s next for the ASA’s project?

The ASA’s call for evidence will be the start point to help the regulator evaluate its approach to ad labelling online.

It will help the ASA ensure that its approach to advising and regulating the ad industry is in tune with the way evolving digital platforms work, as well as being in line with consumers’ expectations and experience.

The regulator’s website has more information on the specific evidence the ASA is looking for. It is asking for any research or evidence to be submitted by Friday 13 April at adlabelling@asa.org.uk.

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