Since the beginning of the pandemic the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), and Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), have remained conscious that in this time of national crisis it’s imperative to act sensitively and with due regard to the circumstances faced by businesses and members of the public alike. In practice, this has meant applying a lightness of touch in some areas, and, in other areas, an uncompromising stance on companies or individuals seeking to use advertising to exploit the circumstances for their own gain.
Over the past six months or so we, and the ASA, have seen numerous ads include references to COVID-19 – from products and services which have claimed to help prevent or treat the virus and references to businesses’ newly established practices and procedures regarding consumer safety, to simple references to the pandemic to establish a present-day time-frame.
In September 2020, following a number of consumer complaints and industry queries, the ASA published some guiding principles regarding when, and if, ads should include depictions of safety measures introduced by the Government – such as social distancing and the use of face-coverings in some settings.
The guiding principles make clear that the ASA and CAP are taking a pragmatic approach when considering ads, being mindful of the fact that many ads were created ‘pre-COVID-19’ and that consumers are not likely to interpret all ads as ‘instructional’. Despite this, there are nevertheless some circumstances where an ad could be considered to be socially irresponsible.
The principles are clear that ads that actively discourage or disparage safety measures are likely to be considered socially irresponsible and therefore break the rules. Equally, ads which directly reference the virus (such as creating a setting for the ad or referencing measures the marketer has taken as a result of the pandemic) should show safety measures if they are relevant to the featured scenes (such as a supermarket scene) to avoid being considered socially irresponsible. Ads which made no reference to COVID-19, even if they are otherwise set in the ‘present’, need not show safety measures.
Also, for further advice on the advertising of COVID-19 related products and services such as hand sanitisers, face-coverings, medicines and food supplements – and also on issues of creating unjustifiable fear or distress in COVID-19 related advertising – see CAP’s AdviceOnline article here. This includes links to relevant guidance from other regulators like the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
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