My job: Guiding the advertising watchdog's digital evolution

My job: Guiding the advertising watchdog's digital evolution
Orla Twomey, CEO, Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland.

Name: Orla Twomey

Occupation: CEO, Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland

Background: Established in 1981, the ASAI sets, enforces and regulates standards on the basic premise that all advertising should be ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful.’ It receives up to 1500 complaints each year.

The Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland (ASAI) upholds the highest standards of advertising through the Code of Standards for Advertising and Marketing Communications, covering commercial marketing communications and sales promotions in all media in Ireland, including print, outdoor, radio, TV, leaflets/brochures, direct marketing and digital. 

“The ASAI recognises the importance of continually ensuring that the remit of the Code applies to all commercial marketing communications, including those in developing media,” explains Orla Twomey.

At its most basic, the Code’s remit follows where marketing communications go. The essential principles of the ASAI have remained consistent since its foundation - essentially, don’t mislead, don’t offend and be responsible.

However, there have been significant societal and technological changes since 1981, she adds: “Who could have envisaged the explosion of online media and platforms four decades ago? The Code has evolved to ensure that where advertising goes, the Code follows. This approach ensures that consumers have confidence that the advertising they see, regardless of where they see it, is subject to the highest advertising standards and that if they have concerns, those concerns can be assessed by the ASAI.” 

The current seventh edition of the Code came into effect in 2016 and was updated to take into account a number of public concerns surrounding alcohol advertising, children, food and non-alcoholic beverages, gambling, health and beauty claims, promotional marketing practices and e-cigarettes.

The complaint process is straightforward via online or by post, and requiring some basic information for the assessment process. “We don’t investigate anonymous complaints and unless we have specific permission, we don’t identify consumer complaints to advertisers.” 

Additional information is required regarding who advertiser is, what did the ad say and where was it seen or heard: “We also need to know what the objection is. We don’t assume, for example, that we know why a consumer considers an ad to be misleading.

Similarly, if the complainant considers an ad to be offensive, we need to know why they consider it to be offensive.

Once a complaint is received, it is checked against the Code to determine if there is a basis for investigation, and, where warranted, a report is prepared for the independent Complaints Committee - which both advertiser and complainants can see in advance - and the Committee then decides on whether the advertising is in breach of the Code.

The committee, composed of a range of experts from the advertising, media, education, consumer and marketing sectors, is a completely independent arm of the ASAI responsible for considering and dealing with complaints submitted by the public, a member of the ASAI, a Government Department or any other person or body of persons.

In 2018, the ASAI received 1,682 written complaints concerning 1,183 advertisements, representing a decrease of just over 20% of complaints received compared to 2017. 

“While the number of complaints received in 2018 was 22% lower than the extraordinary levels of 2017 - 64% up on 2016 - the increase in complaints in 2018 over 2016 was 29% and in advertisements complained about was 19%.

But even with the increase in complaints, at 1,183 in 2018, it is a very small proportion of the thousands of advertisements that were published during the year in all Irish media – TV, radio, online, newspapers, magazines, outdoor, brochures, leaflets and cinema.

Orla Twomey is very keen that the ASAI is seen as a trusted partner for Government and State agencies, with the Authority asked to participate in the Mobile and Broadband Taskforce, where its broad remit relates to the advertising of mobile and broadband services. It is currently finalising a Guidance note that will set out guidance for companies when advertising their services to consumers, covering speed claims, availability claims and how to use descriptors such as ‘fibre’”, she explains. 

The ASAI also engages with Ministers and TDs on an ongoing basis in regards to regulation to the transparency of online political advertising, and took part in an Open Policy Forum on December 2018 as part of this process. With social influencers now a growing part of the advertising landscape, it has become an increasingly active sector for the ASAI in recent years. 

“We have been active in making sure that both brands and social media influencers understand that when they work together to create content and where there is payment and control, that it is flagged as advertising.

Where celebrities or influencers are sponsored by brands or paid directly to promote a product, it must be clear these posts are marketing communications,” she underlines. To achieve this, the ASAI encourages the use of a clearly identifiable hashtag such as #Ad or #SP., with the chosen identifier immediately included and clear from the beginning of the content.

A number of Irish influencers have been subject of complaints to the ASAI, specifically in relation to disclosing when a post is an advertisement.

The ASAI is part of two international associations, the European Advertising Standards Alliance and the International Council for Ad Self-Regulation. EASA has a ‘scorecard’ which sets out the elements which an ad standards body should have, including a code, free complaints process for consumers, publication of decisions, monitoring and copy advice.

The ASAI has all of the elements and plays an active role in the EASA with its Chief Executive a member of both the Board of Directors and its Executive Committee.

By being part of these organisations, we can share and learn from best practices from other countries.

As to the challenges facing the ASAI into the future, Orla Twomey says: “Part of the challenge on the future is that you don’t know. New technological advances providing increased opportunities for advertisers to engage with consumers can be challenging as the manner in which advertising is created and shared becomes ever more complex.

"It is really important that we continue to work with new players to ensure that they engage with the advertising standards system, not just to ensure that consumers are protected but to also ensure that trust in advertising is protected.”

She adds that globalisation is also a challenge when marketing decisions about advertising placed in the Irish market are established in other countries, and where culture differences need to be considered. A further challenge centres around funding. The ASAI is funded by the Irish advertising industry mainly through a levy of 0.2% on advertising spend.

“The fact that the levy is so modest means that it does not create a disproportionate burden on any one company but spreads the cost across the whole of the industry. Part of our challenge is the disruption in the market caused by significant digital players.

While they support compliance with ASAI’s decisions and will take down advertising found in breach of the Code, they do not currently facilitate the collection of the levy, yet the online space is the biggest source of complaint to the ASAI.

"This situation cannot continue and we are engaging with various digital players, both locally and at a European level on this issue.” 

Her ambitions include making the ASAI “the one-stop shop” for advertising regulatory matters.

“I want to ensure that we remain at the heart of all educational courses related to advertising and marketing, and that the ASAI continues to ensure that all advertising is responsible, that practitioners are deeply knowledgeable and that society trusts the advertising they see.”

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