ASA wants to police online ads with AI in new five-year strategy

The next year will be about 'scoping out' what needs to be done by the ad watchdog.

Amazon Prime: machine-learning could help the ASA root out misleading claims by online retailers
Amazon Prime: machine-learning could help the ASA root out misleading claims by online retailers

The Advertising Standards Authority will explore using artificial intelligence as part of its new five-year plan to future-proof the organisation. 

The UK ad watchdog will launch the strategy, entitled "The future of ad regulation", at its conference in Manchester today.

The online focus of the strategy is a response to the dramatic shift in advertising to digital channels in recent years and they now take up the vast majority of the regulator’s workload.

Of the 7,099 ads that were amended or withdrawn by the ASA in 2017, 88% were either wholly or partially online executions. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the 19,000 cases resolved by the ASA last year were about online ads.

Guy Parker, the ASA chief executive, told Campaign that the organisation was only at the beginning of the process for figuring out what machine-learning technology would be used or what staff resource would be needed. The next year, Parker said, would be about "scoping out" what can be done.

Data-driven intelligence gathering to play greater role

Without naming Amazon, Parker pointed to the example of an online retailer making misleading claims about offering free delivery and how machine-learning could be employed to identify such instances.

"We can use algorithms to search out advertising claims that might need changing… if you put in a Scottish postcode and get hit with an extra delivery charge, it’s then easy to see how algorithms could help us cast the net wide and find those claims." 

In August, Amazon was banned from advertising "unlimited one-day delivery" with Prime following an ASA investigation that found people had been misled over how many items were eligible. 

Parker said data-driven intelligence gathering would also play a greater role in how the ASA can become more proactive in policing ads that breach the standards code, instead of relying on complaints from people.

'Everyone needs to meaningfully contribute'

However, he warned, it was also up to the likes of Google and Facebook to help ensure ads on their platforms were compliant with the code in order to maintain a culture of self-regulation in British advertising. The two online giants have been particularly successful in growing ad revenue from small and medium-sized business, many of which buy ads directly without agencies. 

Parker added: "The alternative to a successful and sustainable self-reporting system is quite ugly; it’s either state regulation that I think would be more expensive to business, as well as being slow and less flexible and involving far less engagement with industry. Or it would be practically no regulation, which would be a very bad thing, too, by leading to a race to the bottom."

The ASA, which receives no government funding, also faces a greater funding challenge as more money moves online. A £1 voluntary levy is currently paid by brands for every £1,000 spent on buying advertising – something that is potentially much harder to track for some online ads than it is for offline channels.

Parker acknowledged that "everyone needs to meaningfully contribute" and admitted "there is no secret that there is a structural challenge to the funding of the ASA system".

He added: "It’s very important that we are clear that the success of this strategy relies on the commitment of the whole industry involved in placing or running ads in the UK."

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