Influencer posts to blame for one in four online ad complaints to ASA

Just nine advertisers were referred to trading standards for further action last year.

Instagram ads: more than 4,000 influencer ad posts were complained about in UK last year
Instagram ads: more than 4,000 influencer ad posts were complained about in UK last year

Influencer advertising was responsible for a quarter of all complaints about online ads last year, the regulator’s annual report for 2019 has revealed.  

The Advertising Standards Authority’s Annual Report 2019 said there were 4,401 complaints about 3,670 ads by "influencers" – individuals who are paid to promote brands on their own social media profiles. This made up 26% of all online ad complaints last year.

Online media was responsible for just under half (48%) of all complaints about ads last year – 16,767 out of 34,717 – and now dwarfs that of TV, which yielded 9,971 complaints (29%). 

The ASA also resolved 4,469 cases in which it began an investigation on in its own initiative. In total, 8,881 ads were amended or withdrawn last year as a result of ASA probes.

Just nine advertisers needed to be referred to trading standards for further action – the strongest sanction the ASA can impose. 

The watchdog reported that it also made "good progress" on its five year-strategy "More impact online", which uses avatar monitoring to protect children from unsafe online advertising. By using avatars that mimic children’s internet-browsing behaviour, the ASA said it discovered and analysed careless targeting by gambling operators and brands promoting foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt. 

However, the ASA is not using this tech to name and shame offenders, and stressed that the strategy is still in its early stages.

Writing in the report, ASA chief executive Guy Parker said: "We focused on prioritisation, partnership working and process improvement, achieving our targeted reduction in rulings, in particular by reducing formal investigations into non-sensitive website advertising by small businesses and prioritising an ‘education first’ approach to resolving lower detriment cases."

One of the organisation’s targets is to reduce the number of reactive complaints that it handles compared with proactive projects, such as cracking down on influencer posts that do not properly display the #ad hashtag or children’s exposure to age-restricted TV spots.  

Last year, 59% of the ASA’s caseload came from complaints and 18% of cases were on its own initiative – slightly worse than its respective targets of 55% and 20%. The report blamed a high volume of complaints, an office move and the implementation of a new case management system for why this balance did not improve. 

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