Complaints about influencer posts made up more than a quarter of all online advertising complaints according to the ASA and CAP 2019 annual report.


Consumers made 4,401 complaints about influencer advertisements in 2019 from a total of 16,767 online advertising complaints. This is according to the ASA and CAP 2019 annual report launched this week. 

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is the UK’s independent regulator of advertising across all media. The Committees Of Advertising Practice (CAP) write the UK Advertising Codes and provide authoritative guidance on the rules.

This is the first year the report has broken down the subcategories of online complaints. It’s part of the ASA’s 5-year plan called ‘More impact online’. The move is a commitment to ‘collective’ regulation and proactive tech-assisted intelligence gathering, complaint handling, monitoring and enforcement. 

To combat the spike in online complaints the ASA and CAP launched Avatar Monitoring, a proactive capture and analysis of online ads using ‘avatars’ that mimic the browsing of children and young people. 

Avatars have made 196,000 visits to over 250 websites leading the regulator to capture and review 95,000 advertisements, according to the report.

This innovative use of technology has helped catch out careless targeting by gambling operators and brands promoting high fat, salt or sugar foods. The move also sends a clear message to would-be offenders: follow the rules or pay the penalty.

ASA annual report

ASA annual report: 1-in-4 1-in-4 online ad complaints are influencer posts 

Beyond avatars the report also outlines the ASA’s plans to develop data science and machine-learning capabilities to deliver a step-change in the way it regulates. It’s the aim of the body to be able to respond to the scale of the challenge of regulating an ever-increasing number of website and social media ads. 

“We want to be leaders in AI-driven advertising regulation and, with the help of an AI consultancy, we now have a clear data science plan that is our road map to realising this ambition”, says Jo Poots, Head of Operations – Complaints and Investigations, ASA.

The watchdog plans to use a three-phased approach over the next four years to build an internal data science capability. The new competence will utilise advanced machine-learning techniques to tackle fundamental regulatory issues and provide an even greater level of consumer protection.

Again harnessing technology to scale both their effectiveness and efficiency the ASA and CAP have started using Brandwatch, a social intelligence tool, to strategically monitor ad content online. 

“Using Brandwatch, we can both observe trends across a broad range of online content, such as gender presentation in ads, and also look closely for individual breaches of the advertising rules, such as unlabelled ads from individual influencers,” says James Miller Digital Communications Specialist, ASA  adding: “This real-time consumer intelligence enables us to scale up our regulation online by monitoring compliance and ensuring high standards in all UK advertising.”

Influencer marketing self-regulation

Including a breakdown of online complaints provides influencer marketing with a baseline from which to measure improvement. In the last 12-18 months, influencer marketing as an industry has embraced the need for greater dialogue and education on the rules and regulations. 

“We continued our work in relation to influencer marketing – from creating a ‘cheat sheet’ for Love Island contestants in partnership with ITV to hosting a training event that included the CMA [Competition and Markets Authority] as a co-presenter, to give the industry clear and comprehensive guidance on the regulatory framework in which it operates” says Emma Smith Operations Manager – Copy Advice, CAP.

Influencer compliance has become a regular topic in webinars, conferences and marketing events. This provides a growth area for businesses such as Hashtag Ad Consulting - an independent provider of advertising regulation guidance for social media influencers and marketers.

Rupa Shah, founder at Hashtag Ad believes solid progress has been made by the watchdog around building awareness of the rules and regulations: “By working closely with the CMA to create joint guidance and inviting the industry to learn more about the rules in a jointly hosted seminar, the ASA was able to address the confusion caused by having two 'influencer regulators' in the UK and to successfully raise awareness and understanding of influencer marketing rules and regulations in the UK”. 

However, Shah contends that the efforts remain work in progress: “the priority for the ASA/CAP must be to engage with, learn from and adapt guidance to reflect changes in the main platforms that facilitate influencer marketing. 

“There must be more formal investigations on a variety of influencer scenarios in order for the industry to truly understand its obligations and to send a clear message that the rules must be applied by everyone; brands, agencies and influencers alike."

The ASA and CAP 2019 Annual Report was published on 03 June 2020.

Feature photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash.

Scott Guthrie is a professional adviser within the influencer marketing industry. He is an event speaker, university guest lecturer, media commentator on influencer marketing and active blogger. He works with brands, agencies and platforms to achieve meaningful results from influencer marketing. That tells you something about him but it's not giving you a lot of detail, is it? So, read more here.

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