TV ad complaints increased as Covid Britain stayed home, ASA report reveals

Ad watchdog to tackle racial stereotypes, climate change and body image issues in 2021.

TV ad complaints increased as Covid Britain stayed home, ASA report reveals

Complaints about TV ads rocketed up last year by more than 40% as locked-down Britain spent more time in front of the small screen, according to the Advertising Standards Authority’s 2020 annual report.

Ryanair’s “Jab and go” ad promoting spring and summer holidays attracted 2,371 complaints, making it not only the most complained about ad for 2020 but the third most complained about ad of all time. The ad was banned as it could be seen to be encouraging people to act irresponsibly once they were vaccinated.

There were 14,211 complaints about 5,070 different TV ads, an increase of 43% on 2019, “perhaps reflecting increased viewership during lockdown”, according to the ad watchdog. The complaints covered 5,070 different ads, making up approximately 20% of the ASA’s caseload.

Conversely, complaints about outdoor ads fell by 56%, a trend that could be linked to a lack of exposure to the medium as the public followed the stay-at-home instruction for large swathes of 2020 and outdoor adspend declined.

The ASA’s workload was once more dominated by online. Nearly half of all complaints (17,379) related to online and these ads made up 61% of all cases. Influencer marketing complaints and cases decreased by 8% and 9% respectively and accounted for almost a quarter of the online caseload.

In total, over 2020 the regulator resolved 36,342 complaints relating to 22,823 ads.

Tackling the big issues

The ASA was keen to communicate through its annual report how it had evolved to protect “young and vulnerable people” from “potentially misleading, harmful and irresponsible ads”.

Measures taken included:

  • Fast-tracking harmful or irresponsible Covid-19 ad-related claims and working with medical regulator the MHRA instructing IV drip clinics not to imply that the drips could prevent or treat Covid-19
  • Continuing its ongoing monitoring sweeps of children’s online media to identify and tackle age-restricted ads that were “irresponsibly placed or served”
  • Launching a “scam ad alert” system, in partnership with platforms including Facebook and Google
  • Running a sweep of more than 24,000 influencer posts, which found poor compliance with the rules.

Over the course of 2020, the authority has also turned its attention to some major societal issues of the day and work on these areas continues this year.

Following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, last year the ASA reviewed its past decisions in this area and now plans to commission a “major piece” of public research on “harmful racial and ethnic stereotypes”.

Meanwhile, a “climate change and the environment” project is planned to make sure its rules and casework are up to date and effective on issues such as greenwashing claims. 

The regulator is also consulting on new rules that would prohibit advertising for cosmetic interventions being targeted at people under the age of 18 and preparing to launch a call for evidence to examine “the potential harms relating to body image and the potential impact of advertising on consumers’ mental health”.

ASA chief executive Guy Parker said: “Despite the huge challenges of the past 12 months, we doubled down on protecting children and people in vulnerable circumstances. We smashed our previous record of ads amended or withdrawn.  

“We’re exploring holding online platforms to greater account for their role in upholding responsible ads online and we’re running important projects on the environment, racial and ethnic stereotyping and body image,” he added.

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