Does self-regulation of online ads work?

It has been a while since the internet advertising space was a lawless land, out of reach of the industry's enforcers and where consumers ventured at their peril.

"It isn’t the Wild West any more," a leading regulator insists. And it’s widely agreed that the Advertising Standards Authority has been an effective sheriff, albeit in a tough environment. Indeed, the ASA has run a significant number of baddies out of town in the four years since it began cleaning up the territory, after its remit was extended to provide more consumer protection online.

So how worried should the guys in white hats be that there were more complaints about internet ads than TV ads for the first time in 2014? At first glance, the number of internet-derived complaints – 35 per cent up on the previous year – might suggest the sheriff’s men need tighter regulatory powers.

Some, however, believe that the laws are tough enough and what has happened only reflects the growth of a medium that has become very fragmented with a proliferation of messaging platforms. So is no more rules but more scrutiny, and an update of existing law, the way to go?

Trade body

James Best, chairman, Committee of Advertising Practice

"I’m struck most by the fact that the number of complaints about internet ads isn’t higher. Particularly as the ASA rules now apply to all company websites and all areas of their marketing communications. In fact, complaints about internet advertising account for about a third of all complaints. That’s very much in line with the internet’s share of the total market. What’s more, complaints about internet marketing are usually about a single case. It’s not like TV, where one ad may attract multiple complaints. Also, the vast majority of complaints about internet ads tend to be about misleading, rather than offensive, advertising."

Agency head

Stephen Maher, chief executive, MBA

"The rising number of complaints about internet ads isn’t surprising. It reflects not only the burgeoning growth of the medium, but also one where the tendency is to experiment and push the boundaries in an area that doesn’t have a long history of scrutiny. That said, we need to be vigilant. The ASA has done a good job but its task is only going to get more difficult. There should be a way for the ASA to operate in the  online sphere as it does with TV and print. But it may need more time and resource to keep tabs on new developments."

Trade body

Nick Stringer, director of regulatory affairs, Internet Advertising Bureau

"Two important points emerge from the fact that complaints to the ASA about internet ads have reached a new high. One is that more money is now spent on digital platforms than any other media in the UK. Last year, the figure reached more than £7 billion. As more money is spent, there are bound to be more complaints. The other is that the growing amount of digital means it’s easier for people to make mass complaints about a handful of ads. The IAB will always work to ensure that our market grows in a responsible way and that self-regulation evolves."


Geoff Gower, executive creative director, AIS London

"Internet advertising doesn’t need tighter regulation. It actually needs less. One of the reasons we have so much mediocre and bland advertising in the UK is that we’re tied down by regulation. As a D&AD judge, I’ve seen work from Australia and New Zealand that really reflects the spirit of those countries. We don’t do enough of that kind of advertising. I think the increase in complaints about internet ads just reflects a kind of faux outrage in society. It’s not enough just to moan about something down the pub any more."