The ASA received a record 43,325 complaints in 2021, an increase of 19% on 2020, although the number of ads complained about (22,115) remained pretty steady.
About half the complaints resulted in sanctions, but not the year’s most complained-about spot, Tesco’s 2021 Christmas ad. Santa and his covid passport annoyed more than 5,000 anti-vaxxers (putting it just behind Paddy Power’s 2014 Oscar Pistorius gaff as the UK’s most complained about ad ever), but it was cleared by the ASA.
For the first time, the ASA has also divided up the complaints by nation. The Scots are the most critical – they made up 10.6% of complaints despite being only 8.2% of the population.
England complained in line with its size, while Northern Ireland and Wales complained relatively little.
Two thirds of the overall cases and almost half the complaints to the ASA were about TV ads, showing that it’s still by far the most visible medium. In fact, there was an increase of 44% on 2020, although the number of ads complained about was down by 5%.
Outdoor had 1,240 complaints, up 58%, while press complaints — in a reflection of descending levels of readership — were down 12% to 621.
Again reflecting consumer consumption, online ads overtook TV: they got 20,735 complaints, up by 19% on 2020, although case numbers didn’t change much. The ASA now uses a lot of AI to help tackle unlabelled influencer advertising, capturing and analysing nearly 20,000 Instagram Stories each month.
Podcasts are attracting more complaints (up 54%) as they become mainstream media, but actual numbers were still low at 77.
The ASA has a difficult job to do, especially as opinions become more polarised (witness Tesco’s Santa), societal norms change so quickly, and online increases the pace and scale of the task. The increase in complaints shows the ASA is successfully making itself accessible to consumers and holding advertisers and influencers to account.