One could be forgiven for not knowing it, but all that stuff about
advertising having to be legal, decent and truthful has applied to the
activities of UK clients and agencies on the internet since 1996.
Now there are plans for a much more proactive and high-profile
self-regulatory scheme to cover internet advertising. Clients will be
given the opportunity to opt in, declaring publicly that they observe
the industry’s codes. They will even be able to display a special logo
on their websites, confirming what upright citizens they are.
Industry consultations have already taken place. The Committee of
Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Advertising Standards Board of
Finance (ASBF) are expected to give the go-ahead during the early
summer, with a launch at the start of the next millennium. Publicity
will try to raise consumer awareness of the new scheme to levels
comparable with those enjoyed by the existing Advertising Standards
Yet it would be wrong to think that the whole thing is cut and
Andrew Brown, the CAP chairman, admits there are unresolved problems:
’How do you define advertising on the internet? Some websites have a
commercial purpose, others are like company reports.Trying to maintain
the difference between advertising and editorial is important. If the ad
industry was deemed to be trying to influence what is editorial on the
net, it could impact on what happens in conventional media.’
’There is a lot of interest in the scheme, and a momentum to arrive at a
solution,’ Brown adds. ’But we don’t want a solution that is so complex
that it prejudges how the internet will develop, when no-one knows the
answer. Better to get in at the shallow end of the pool and be flexible,
than to dive in at the deep end and be inflexible.’
The whole scheme is ambitious and is the first major development of the
self-regulatory system since direct marketing in the early 90s,
according to Caroline Crawford, communications director for both CAP and
Ambitious, yes - straightforward, no. Trying to control the internet (a
medium no-one owns and where geographical boundaries are meaningless) is
a potential nightmare. But there are motives for trying.
The first is to get a system in place before complaints about
advertising become a real issue. It is hardly that at the moment
Crawford says the ASA received eight complaints in 1996, 14 in 1997 and
49 last year. While a growing trend, it’s, she says, ’an absolute drop
in the ocean’. So far.
Second, there’s pressure from both Brussels and Whitehall for some
measure of consumer protection. Government, clients and agencies are
united in preferring self-regulation to legislation.
Finally, there are the needs of bona fide advertisers and publishers.
They’re a bit like honest citizens opening a store in a Wild West
frontier town, where people half expect quack doctors to sell them snake
oil and outlaws to run off with the gold.
Seventy thousand people a day visit the various sites of the Electronic
Telegraph. ’We have never had a single complaint about advertising,’
stresses its publisher, Danny Meadows-Klue, ’but that doesn’t mean we
don’t feel a responsibility to do everything to ensure consumer
’To take the same processes that apply to conventional media across to
the internet is a delightful approach. All of us have a desire to get
the key framework in place as soon as we can.’
The scheme will also be important for reassuring potential advertisers,
who want evidence of proper control, adds Charlie Dobres, formerly of
Lowe Interactive, and now the chief executive of the specialist media
Even on the most optimistic forecast, he says, the UK market for
paid-for advertising on the internet will still be smaller than radio
and posters by 2003. The sector is embryonic and needs careful
The self-regulation plan was originally touted as the ’trustmark’.
That’s been dropped in favour of the pedestrian-sounding ’CAP
This stems from a wish to avoid implying that an ad has been vetted. In
fact, all the scheme will promise is that the advertiser has agreed to
abide by the British codes.
Advertisers who sign up will be able to carry the CAP e-advertising
scheme logo on their websites. If they prefer not to, they will still be
listed on the CAP e-advertising site. Consumers clicking on the logo
will be transferred to CAP to verify that the advertiser in question is
in the scheme. And there’ll be instructions on how to complain direct to
the advertiser, or to the ASA if the caller has a grievance.
It is recognised that even a complex logo can be copied, but Crawford
believes this won’t be a problem. ’I think the internet is the kind of
environment where enthusiasts will copy something, just to show they
can,’ she says. ’The important thing is the link from the logo to the
It would be more difficult to create a parallel, fraudulent ASA site,
which we would detect through our normal monitoring of the internet and
take action against.’
A CASE OF NATIONAL IDENTITY
When a montage photograph of the Queen appeared on the Internet,
apparently endorsing a pair of Ganter sandals, a complaint was lodged
first with the UK embassy in Bonn, and finally with the European
Advertising Standards Alliance in Brussels.
The complaint took this route because the evidence suggested the company
was German - ’but when we looked behind the web pages it was clear it
had a UK base,’ Caroline Crawford, communications director for the ASA
and CAP, says. ’The company agreed to stop using the Queen’s
The case illustrates how complicated policing the web can be. The
consensus view is that ads should be governed by the rules operating in
their country of origin. This can be pinned down using a number of
criteria, such as what currencies or languages are used, where the head
office is based and where the ad is hosted.
’If the activity is fraudulent, the ultimate course of action may be to
go to the internet service provider to ask them to ensure consumers are
not being conned in this way,’ Crawford says.