Advertising Standards Authority banned or amended three times more ads in 2020

The Advertising Standards Authority amended or withdrew 36,491 ads in 2020, according to its latest annual report — a 346 per cent increase on the previous year. The dramatic uptick was mainly driven by the ASA’s use of tech-assisted online ad monitoring.

Online ads inspired almost half of all complaints, up by four per cent from last year, and a quarter of these were about influencer posts. Three quarters of online ads were deemed misleading, compared to one third of broadcast ads.

TV complaints went up by 43 per cent – possibly because so much TV was being watched in 2020 and so many people were at home with more time to complain – but they still made up only 20 per cent of cases.

Food and drink ads saw a 19 per cent decrease in cases, which is good ammunition for the ad industry’s battle with the government to stop further restrictions on HFSS ads. Health and beauty ads made up the biggest complaints category, up by 40 per cent, probably driven by influencer content.

ASA chief executive, Guy Parker said: “Despite the huge challenges of the last 12 months, we doubled down on protecting children and people in vulnerable circumstances. We’re exploring holding online platforms to greater account for their role in upholding responsible ads online and we’re running important projects on the environment, racial and ethnic stereotyping and body image. In all of this, our increased use of technology is helping us to better protect people.”

The full report goes in strong on the ASA’s claim that it is “protecting young and vulnerable people” by coming down hard on anything that affected body image, promoted irresponsible use of credit, targeted children inappropriately (including gambling and in-game purchases), promoted wider societal harms like racial stereotyping and greenwashing, or were misleading about health issues, particularly related to Covid and casework.

There’s no list yet of the most complained about ads of the year, unfortunately. It’s always a great barometer of the times.

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