Wednesday, 24 November 2010 16:49
From March 2011, tougher advertising regulations will place a greater restraint on how businesses promote themselves on their websites and in social media. What are the new rules? And are they something small firms should be worrying about?
You might say the internet just became a little less free. As of March 2011, the adverts and marketing communications a company puts on its own web site or on free channels like Facebook and Twitter will fall under the watchful eye of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
For years, the advertising industry’s standards body has maintained the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code. The Code ensures adverts are legal, decent, honest and truthful, and is used to justify ASA adjudications on whether adverts are acceptable or not.
A lot of online advertising activity is already covered by the CAP Code, from emails and pay-per-click advertising to banners and pop-ups – anything that has been paid for. But it’s the free marketing space on the internet that small businesses are exploiting so successfully and this, too, is about to come under regulatory control.
So when you promote your firm on your website or tell people about your offer on Twitter or Facebook, you may have to start taking a little more care over what you say about your own products and those of your rivals.
The line between marketing and editorial
The extended CAP Code will only cover online marketing, not editorial. But it’s a tricky distinction to draw. If you write a blog where you talk about your industry, your products or even a weekend away, does it count as marketing?
The ASA admits there are grey areas and has promised to review the Code each quarter. It has also said it welcomes feedback from businesses.
The don’ts – and their consequences
Outlandish claims about your product is just one of the areas covered by the CAP Code. Other no-nos include selling to children, encouraging anti-social behaviour or simply causing offence. There are also specific rules for sellers of products such as tobacco, medicines and alcohol.
It’s likely that you are mindful of restrictions when planning your advertising or marketing. But social media is so much more informal and immediate that it can be easy to slip up. Even a throwaway comment about a rival business on Facebook or Twitter could lead to a complaint.
Anyone can complain to the ASA. If the regulatory body finds a breach, it can ask you to amend or remove the comment or claim. If you refuse, there are sanctions.
“These include the removal of paid-for search advertising – ie, ads that link to the page hosting the non-compliant marketing communication,” explains ASA’s Matt Wilson. “We have the search engines’ buy-in on this.
“We also have ASA paid-for search ads, so we can put our own ads online to highlight an advertiser’s non-compliance. And we have an enhanced name and shame gallery on our web site, where we can list people refusing to cooperate.”
What’s the real impact?
In reality, it is unlikely that many small businesses will be affected by the extension to the CAP Code. More than 30 million adults access the internet almost every day in the UK; yet in the last two years, the ASA has received just 4,500 complaints relating to internet content. This could change if businesses themselves start using the beefed-up Code to address misleading and untrue comments made by their competitors online – in fact, this may even be the biggest impact of the regulatory change.
Time will tell how much small businesses might be affected by the CAP changes. In the meantime, there are simple steps you can take to ensure you don’t risk falling foul of the regulations:
Familiarise yourself with the elements of the CAP Code that could affect your business
Ensure your existing marketing and advertising is not in breach of the Code
Remind yourself and your staff of the importance of thinking twice before making throwaway comments when using social media.