John McGee: Ad industry naughty chair stops firms running amok
Despite the fact that digital advertising now accounts for over 50pc of all advertising spend in Ireland, it would appear that the digital marketers still have a lot to learn when it comes to creating advertising that isn't misleading, offensive or, at the very least, sailing close to the wind when it comes to the voluntary codes of conduct that apply to all marketing communications.
According to the annual report of the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI), which was published earlier this week, complaints relating to digital advertising accounted for the single biggest chunk of complaints made by consumers during 2016.
Now why am I not surprised by this?
Of the 1,329 complaints received during the year, 44pc or 586 related to digital advertising or marketing communications, including marketing and advertising messages on company websites, social media channels and paid-for search.
This compares with the 354 complaints the ASAI received for ads broadcast on TV and radio, the 118 complaints made about outdoor advertising and just 71 for newspapers and magazines.
The objective of the ASAI Code is to ensure that all commercial marketing communications are "legal, decent, honest and truthful" and all advertisers and anyone engaged in any form of marketing communications have to abide by the code.
The ASAI's annual report points out that 67pc of all the complaints made in 2016 were on the basis that an ad was misleading, while 12pc complained that they were offensive. While the vast majority of complaints come from the public, it is not unusual to find complaints coming from rival advertisers or brands who take umbrage at a specific claim being made or because they feel they have been unfairly attacked. Some of these complaints also have a whiff of mischief-making about them too.
Section 4.34 of the ASAI Code, for example, states that "marketing communications should not unfairly attack, discredit or denigrate other businesses or their products, trademarks, trade names or other distinguishing marks".
This does happen, especially when a trigger-happy marketer feels the wholly unnecessary urge to have a pop at a rival brand or advertiser.
But, of course, just because somebody complains to the ASAI about an ad doesn't mean it's in breach of the code. An ad may be downright annoying and possibly a bit intrusive - but if it's legal, decent and truthful then it gets the all clear.
Of the 1,376 formal complaints resolved in 2016, including 266 which were carried over from 2015, it is worth pointing out that just 102 were found to be in breach of the code. On the surface this might not seem like a lot but that's 102 different brands and advertisers that were told to sit on the naughty chair during 2016.
Given the increased use of adblocking software, it's clear that the digital industry has a big problem on its hands at the moment. Compounding that with advertising that complainants deem to be offensive or illegal is only adding to the industry's woes. While people may not scurry off to the ASAI with their complaints, they are voting with their browsers or they are savvy enough to have opted out of receiving any form of behavioural advertising altogether.
Given the sheer amount of bad and sometimes dubious digital advertising that's out there cluttering up people's social media feeds and inboxes, I suspect the vast majority of people simply ignore it and move on.
In terms of the industries that attracted the most amount of complaints during the year, the fiercely-competitive telecommunications sector once again heads the naughty list, accounting for 248 of the total complaints received. It was followed by leisure with 159 complaints and the food and beverages sector which received 126.
Once upon a time alcohol advertising would have been right up there at the top but due largely to the work carried out by CopyClear, which pre-vets all alcohol advertising, the number of complaints have shrunk in recent years, from 57 in 2014 to just 27 in 2016. Of these, just five were found to be in breach of the alcohol rules of the code.
But some of this is also due to an increased sense of responsibility within the drinks industry which has been under fire for a number of years and, to its credit, it has got its marketing game together over the past few years.
With the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill still winging its way through the Houses of the Oireachtas, however, this newly found sense of responsibility might be a tad too late when it comes to swaying policymakers.
But the annual report and the regular adjudication notices published by the ASAI always make for interesting reading. And while it's adjudications during the year may not make national headlines (or any headlines at all), there is a clear need for a body to regulate and police advertising and marketing communications in Ireland.
Left to its own devices, the advertising and marketing industry would probably run amok and in the battle for the hearts and minds of consumers, the only casualties would be consumers themselves.
Sunday Indo Business