What is the ASA?

I've seen some misinformation being spread lately, regarding what the ASA is and what it can do. Self regulation only works insofar as we are all on the same metaphorical page, so I thought I'd clear up a couple of things.

Just some admin to start with: I will use 'blogging' and 'social media marketing' (i.e Instagram) synonymously just for ease and so I don't get repetitive. Where I say blogging, I include Instagram. And visa versa.

I'm going to begin with the misinformation I've been seeing a lot of and why I take issue with it. So, the false information:
1. The ASA is a big, scary authority to be afraid of; 
2. The ASA can fine you, sue you, and take you to court if you don't comply with their rules, which; 
3. Are legally binding (i.e, the rules are laws). 

I take issue with these falsehoods because, firstly, it doesn't paint the ASA in a positive light and may deter people from referring to their advice and resources. The rumours are also likely to be discouraging hobbyist and fledgling bloggers. Not only in their own right, but there are some bloggers that are, in my opinion, rather aggressively promoting ASA values. Rudely barging into Lucy, 20, from Doncaster, with an Instagram following of 2000's direct messages to bluntly inform her she's not captioning her posts correctly, potentially telling her she's 'breaking the law' and that you will 'report her', that she may be 'fined or taken to court' etc etc, is unnecessary, that's just not how self regulation works. So let's start there:

What is 'self regulation'? 
The official definition in the Oxford English Dictionary is an, "organisation regulating itself without intervention from external bodies". What that means for us in practice is that an organisation sets its own standards of practice and isn't interfered with by the government or local councils. In the context of blogging and social media marketing, the massive umbrella term of "advertising" is what we think of as an organisation. Blogging and social media marketing are self regulated. The ASA has explained that, "the ad industry has voluntarily established and paid for its own regulation". Self regulation works by establishing a system of responsibility, co-operation, understanding and a shared set of standards. In short, we are working together with the aim of achieving a shared set of standards.

What is the ASA? 
The Advertising Standards Authority is a self regulatory body (so it's not established by a government) and was born from The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP). CAP writes Advertising Codes, or, in layman's terms, the rules of advertising. The ASA is the regulatory component which ensures advertisers are complying with CAP codes. The ASA was established in the 1960s with the aim of upholding codes of practice for television advertising. The ASA works mainly by helping advertisers understand and correctly follow CAP codes. Areas of advertising the ASA serves includes radio and television, teleshopping, online ads, commercial e-mails and texts, leaflets and posters (to name a few.)
What if someone's not adhering to the codes?  
When people make mistakes, part of self regulation is that it is a collective responsibility of the industry to protect the consumer and our standards. The first and easiest step if someone is 'breaking the rules' is to approach them, explain and refer them to the ASA website. After all, the ASA is entirely self funded and their work takes manpower, time and money, so the straightforward option is a legitimate option. I personally believe in the benefit of the doubt, so approach someone to correct them with the attitude they have made a genuine mistake. You can explain politely that what they are doing isn't up to standard, and where they can find the codes. Threats are not necessary. If incorrect practices persist (which I appreciate in some cases, they do) then you can alert the ASA who can inform them of the correct practises with authority as the regulator.

Are the ASA enforcing the law? 
In a word: no. But they work with those who do, like Trading Standards. If they think you're breaking the law and you're not complying with the CAP codes, they can refer your case to government service. In terms of the codes, whilst they are not laws, they are shaped by the law. The rules aren't just made up willy nilly, they align with the law and ensure advertisers are acting legally. But in and of itself, no; not writing "AD" at the beginning of an Instagram caption is not breaking the law.

What power does the ASA have as a regulator? 
Sanctions for television advertisers are different, but speaking strictly on social media marketing: They can't take you to court. They can't fine you. They won't sue you. (I'm honestly not sure why those rumours have circulated, I can only imagine fear mongering by overzealous bloggers.) What they can do is refer your case to bodies who can.  They can also require you to remove or amend the ad (I'd imagine in practice this is action is typically taken for bigger Instagram users, like Love Island's Molly Mae) and they can negatively impact your reputation by listing your name and problematic advertising practices on their dedicated non-compliant online advertisers section, as well as disqualify you from industry awards.

Why Am I Telling You This?
Because a big factor of self regulation is the co-operation element. A communal set of standards only works if we are all willing to adhere to, uphold, and promote them. I appreciate that Instagram is rife with non-compliant ads, often posted by the usual suspects, but approaching every non-compliant ad with the same vigour is overzealous. (There are plenty of bloggers politely and effectively educating others on the advertising guidelines, though!) I would suggest that some people just like to take up a sanctimonious cause and have seized the opportunity to occupy the moral high ground, but are spreading misinformation in the process. How can we self regulate effectively when it's hard to differentiate between falsehoods and actual codes of practice, let alone navigate the complaints procedure and sanctions?

I also can't help but consider the fact the misinformation I've discussed here has been circulated in the first place: are bloggers really that lazy? Albeit perhaps I may have more of an aptitude for deciphering rules and all the technical jargon they entail (I have a law degree), I got all of this information from the perfectly accessible ASA website. There's no reason for countless bloggers to be regurgitating falsehoods like they'll be taken to court if they forget to include 'AD'.

I hope that was helpful in dispelling some myths. You can find more information on https://www.asa.org.uk.


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