CAMPAIGN REPORT ON NEW MEDIA: Internet hallmarks - A regulatory scheme for internet advertisers is due to launch next year. But can it deliver all it promises, Ken Gofton asks?

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.

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

Authority programme.



Yet it would be wrong to think that the whole thing is cut and

dried.



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

the ASA.



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

confidence.



’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

independent, i-level.



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

nurturing.



The self-regulation plan was originally touted as the ’trustmark’.

That’s been dropped in favour of the pedestrian-sounding ’CAP

e-advertising scheme’.



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

ASA site.



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

picture.’



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.



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