ASA and Social Media / What You Need to Know

Most online advertisers behave themselves and act responsibly in the way in which they promote their services via the internet, but at the same time the massive growth in consumer spending online has attracted a lot of less than scrupulous businesses who make extravagant – and often false – claims about their products, and generally behave like dicks.

In 2009, the total spend on online advertising  in the UK exceeded the spend on TV for the first time.  Thanks to the ability to track ROI across multiple channels and attribute conversions to spend, online channels represent a much better choice for businesses during a recession when budgets are tighter, and there is not the available cash to experiment with less trackable channels.

While the Advertising Standards Agency has long had some degree of authority over grotesquely bad behaviour by companies online, there has never been a specific code of conduct.  As of today, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) will be assuming responsibility for ensuring standards within online advertising to ensure that consumers are protected from misleading information.

This is a good thing for businesses and consumers alike, however there will be a lot of grey areas – particularly in the area of social media marketing.

The full CAP Code (Committee of Advertising Practice) is available online here, and is pretty extensive, as it covers all marketing channels.   There are specific provisions for SEO and PPC activity within the document, and these have been widely discussed over the past six months.

While Social Media is explicitly covered within the Code, the nature of social marketing means that there are likely to be a lot of grey areas that cause confusion.  Here’s some tips:

The CAP Code for Social Media

Any piece of online content published by or on behalf of a business or individual that sets out to promote or sell a product or service is a “marketing communication”, and as such, must be verifiable, honest, and clearly identified as a sales message.  This includes tweets, Facebook posts, blog posts, advertorial content and paid for links.

If you are using your Twitter feed or Facebook Page to promote your business, you need to make it clear to users that this is the case.  Also, any offers you publish must be valid.

User Generated Content

User Generated Content is likely to be the biggest stumbling block for many people when complying with the CAP code, however it’s pretty straightforward.  If an individual independently posts a comment about your business or erroneously says that there is an offer which is actually not valid, this is not a problem.  It’s analagous to my mum calling me to tell me that I could get 24 cans of lager for £10 at Sainsburys when actually the offer is for 10 cans for £24.  Sainsburys are not responsible for that message.

The code only comes into practice with UGC when it is incorporated into specific marketing communications published by the advertiser.  So using the example above, if my mum had tweeted me the offer, and then Sainsburys had retweeted it, then it would be treated as false advertising and a breach of the CAP Code.

Fake User Generated Content

Reviews are fine, but fake reviews posted by a person masquerading as an independent voice are not.  If an employee of Commodore went online and said that the Vic20 was the fastest computer available, and ideal for surfing the net, they would be lying (badly).  Because it was effectively a marketing communication, it would be subject to the CAP Code, and because it was making a false claim it would be in breach of the code, and could result in punishment.

Using User Generated Content

Movie companies using reviews selectively to promote films is a long running joke, but if you now take an external comment like:

Product X is the perfect gift for anyone you hate

And republish it on your website – or any website that you have editorial control over as this:

Product X is the perfect gift

Then it becomes a marketing communication, and because you are misrepresenting the sentiment of the comment, it would be treated as false advertising, and be in breach of the CAP Code.

Do You Have Anything to Fear

Companies may need to be a bit more careful about what they post on Twitter and Facebook, but this just brings Social Media into line with other marketing channels, and in most cases, companies will have nothing to worry about.

Some companies who are currently dubious about getting involved in Social Media may find that the introduction of the CAP Code actually encourages them as it brings added legitimacy to the channel, and helps them, while others may be put off from getting involved.

The code is there to provide protection for customers and businesses alike – to ensure that everyone is treated fairly, and although it may take some getting used to, most businesses will already be behaving in the spirit of the guidelines without having them in place simply because its the right thing to do.

The introduction of the CAP code will not eradicate shady businesses from the web overnight, but it should help to increase consumer confidence, which is good news for the wider market.

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