'Digital media ads play by the rules'

Sheriffs of the digital sector have gunned down the perception they run the “wild west” of the media when it comes to advertising and marketing their businesses.

In a relatively firm vindication for online media, and their regime of ad rules, the advertising watchdog found that the overwhelming majority of promotions were not in breach of its code.

Of the 551 ads – including those via banners, virals, podcasts and sponsored search - the Advertising Standards Authority tested, only 16 appeared to breaking the (CAP) rules.

The highest rate of compliance was among the established types of online ads, such as banners, pop-ups and emails, suggesting advertisers have come to know their limits.

Nearly half of the rule-breaking was committed by sponsored search ads, yet the ASA cautioned that such marketing accounted for the lion’s share of the sampled promos.

Found on the side of search engines, these ads showed the highest level of non-compliance with the rules, like Truthfulness and Safety, when promoting health and beauty businesses.

Marketers in the sector might be wise to expect closer scrutiny from the ASA, given it said health and beauty ads should be “singled out for special attention” by its officials in future.

According to the overall sample of ads, gathered in July and August, podcasts, mobile messaging and virals emerged as meeting the code, which is available online.

Ninety-five per cent of the 75 ads from social networking sites were also compliant.

However, many of the virals excluded from the survey would have breached the code. They were excluded as the ASA can only rule on ads in paid-for space including pop-up and banner ads, e-mails, sponsored search, SMS and virals but not companies’ own websites. 

In its findings, the watchdog reported that, somewhat expectantly, these virals “pushed the boundaries of taste, decency or social responsibility.”

Yet the chances that industry will intervene seem remote, the authority hinted in its survey – Digital Media Survey 2008, the first probe of its kind.

“Advertisers might leave alone versions of their ads that are popularly received but might insist on the removal of versions that are too risqué or offensive to certain groups,” its authors wrote.

“Although we found no evidence of it, the possibility exists of illicit versions of ads being created with the knowledge or support of advertisers as a means of circumventing the rules.

“Such ‘guerrilla marketing’ could be an important part of some companies’ advertising strategy.”

Where a breach of the authority’s rules was found, the advertisers were contacted and asked for an assurance that they would amend their ad and keep it compliant in future.

Christopher Graham, director-general of the ASA, reflected on the survey’s headline finding – that 97% of digital media ads were meeting all the necessary standards.

“[This] should go some way to dispelling the perception that digital is the ‘wild west’ of media,” he said. “Self-regulation clearly works in digital media and where marketing activity is subject to the ASA’s scrutiny, there is a high compliance rate with the rules.”


5th December 2008

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