Friday 24 May 2019

John McGee: 'Advertising codes work but more needs to be done'

John McGee

Every so often the advertising and marketing industry gets a kicking from the regulators for over-stepping the mark when it comes to breaching advertising codes that are there to protect consumers.

In most cases, it's well deserved. After all, misleading, offensive, irresponsible and spammy advertising should have no role to play in the increasingly complex advertising ecosystem.

Or so the theory goes.

According to the 2018 annual report of the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI), which was published this week, it would appear that some advertisers and their brands are still struggling with the basic concept that all advertising should be, in the words of the ASAI, "decent, honest, truthful and created with a sense of responsibility to both consumers and society at large".

Every year, the ASAI's annual report makes for interesting reading and 2018 was no different. During the year it received a total of 1,682 written complaints about 1,183 ads.

While this represents a 20pc decrease on the number of complaints received during 2017, the actual number of ads that had fallen foul of the public and other assorted complainants like, yes, competitors, increased by 8pc.

During the year, 72 ads were found to be in breach of the ASAI's codes. Of these 63pc were deemed to be misleading while 16pc were offensive. The biggest culprits were companies operating in health and beauty, leisure and, quelle surprise, telecommunications.

It won't come as a surprise to learn that the biggest proportion of ads that drew the most ire from complainants ran on digital channels, particularly social media platforms.

In 2010, digital ads accounted for just 22pc of all complaints. By the end of 2018, however, this increased to 45pc, a trend that's not likely to be reversed anytime soon.

In fact, if more people complained about the often spurious and spammy ads that clutter up their social media feeds, it is entirely conceivable that digital's overall percentage could easily be much higher. It might also go some way in explaining why so many people use ad-blockers.

Could it also have anything to do with the poor advertising experience that many people feel they get online?

After digital, broadcast channels - with 516 complaints - attracted the next biggest chunk of complaints, followed by outdoor advertising (350). So, what sectors attract the most complaints? According to the ASAI's annual report, the food and drink sector with 289 complaints drew the most ire during 2018. It was followed by leisure (222), telecoms (192) and health & beauty.

When it comes to the nature of complaints that people make, misleading advertising tops the list. Other complainants focus on irresponsible behaviours, irresponsible consumption or the targeting of children.

It would be wrong to suggest that all advertisers and marketers are trying to pull a fast one on consumers. In fact, the vast majority of marketers and advertising practitioners - and the brands they work for - behave responsibly and ethically when it comes to their marketing communications.

They also take the different codes policed by organisations like the ASAI very seriously.

In addition, a strong culture of compliance has evolved in recent years among the advertising and marketing profession, helped along by organisations like the ASAI, Copy Clear and even the Central Bank of Ireland, which has a role to play in the advertising of financial services.

But in the marketing world, there will always be grey areas that are open to both interpretation - or in some cases obfuscation. There will be always be over-zealous marketers - aided and abetted by equally over-zealous creatives and copy-writers - who will chance their arm with anything, from misleading and false product descriptions, branding designed to deceive and terms and conditions that only lawyers can understand.

Sometimes they will get away with it and Joe Duffy's hotline will be inundated on a daily basis. Other times, certain companies or individuals targeting online audiences will manage to get away with their deception as they advertise anything from Bitcoin to face creams to gullible punters.

And this is precisely the reason why organisations like ASAI and CopyClear - which monitors all alcohol-related advertising - have an important role to play in society.

While many people can see through a lot of the marketing nonsense and spurious attempts at deception, there will be many more who can't.

And consumers, no matter how gullible or daft they may seem, need to be protected, not just from marketers or advertisers trying to pull a fast one, but also from themselves.

Sunday Indo Business

Also in Business