We must play our part for the ASA to do its job
A view from Maisie McCabe

We must play our part for the ASA to do its job

The advertising watchdog needs resource to continue its work as its remit widens - Google and Facebook's commitment is at least a good start.

It’s a long time since I’ve had a personal experience of nits. So it was with some surprise that I learned a charity had been flogging head lice-repelling unicorn badges for £19. Well, it was until the Advertising Standards Authority got involved.

The turquoise badge supposedly contained a "field effect" that head lice don’t like. It sounds a lot more enjoyable than any treatment I remember. But, unfortunately, The Maperton Trust was unable to provide any evidence to the ASA that it actually worked. This was despite the Medicines & Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency having apparently approved the way it marketed the badge. Imagine that: the ASA having higher standards than the medicines agency.

While some might have expected – hoped? – the ASA to have taken a well-known scalp in its first ruling after expanding its remit to advertiser-owned online properties in 2011, the body went for the now-defunct charity and its dubious health claims. Since then, the ASA has ruled on higher-profile cases – such as Kellogg’s Krave cereal and Mondelez International’s Oreo – although it has continued to police the alternative-health industry.

All this and more was included in the ASA’s annual report published last week. From a standing start, issues involving companies’ own websites or social media pages accounted for one in three of the ASA’s resolutions during the past five years. And the shift is accelerating. ASA chief executive Guy Parker told me that last year "nearly half" of the organisation’s time was spent on issues that would have been outside of its remit before 2011. 

It is right and proper that the ASA holds companies’ claims to account, wherever they appear. But this all costs money. As I’m sure you’re all aware, the ASA is funded by the Advertising Standards Board of Finance levy placed on media spend. And the proportion of the levy that comes from digital media has yet to catch up with the ASA’s caseload. It certainly doesn’t make up half of the pot.

The ASA’s strategy of being more selective about the cases it takes to full investigation has helped balance its workload. As has the push to do "more with less". But you’ve got to assume more needs to be done to future-proof the model. The Asbof levy is generally applied by the media agency in charge of the budgets but the rise of the digital duopoly means a fair amount of cash is now spent directly with Google and Facebook. 

But, happily in this case, the two companies seem committed to playing their part. Google’s UK team wants to be part of the system but I understand its parent won’t allow it to add the levy unilaterally. Instead, Google UK has created an opt-in system that direct advertisers can take part in. Not ideal – but a start. I now hear Facebook is working with the ASA on introducing the levy and how to apply it. 

After a year of pressure, Facebook has made a number of commitments. To see it signing up to fund the system it works in is heartening. If only it’d take the same approach to tax.

Maisie McCabe is acting UK editor of Campaign.