Business

New powers to vet online adverts

ASA logo on computer
Image caption The ASA will see staff numbers expand to cope with online changes

People who use the internet are about to get a new opportunity to complain about company websites.

From 1 March, consumers are being invited to make official objections about indecent or misleading information on the internet.

They will be able to complain to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which is taking on new powers to regulate commercial websites.

Up to now the ASA has only been able to monitor traditional advertising.

These were generally on billboards, in newspapers or on television.

New powers

From the start of March, the ASA will be able to police any statement on a company's website which could be interpreted as marketing, even if it is not a paid-for advert.

"The principle that ads have to be legal, decent, honest and truthful is now going to extend to companies' claims on their own websites," said Matt Wilson, of the ASA.

Earlier this month, for example, the ASA ruled that an Yves St Laurent perfume advert was unfit for broadcast on television.

It showed a woman stroking her own arm, and writhing around on the floor.

The ASA said the advert "simulated drug use", and its use on television was banned.

Under the current rules, however, the company would be entitled to use the same advert on its website, without fear of redress.

In fact the advert still appears on the Yves St Laurent UK website, but with a couple of "offending" shots removed.

Shopping claim

In another ruling this year, the ASA decided that a regional television advert for the Metrocentre on Tyneside breached the advertising code.

The Gateshead shopping centre had claimed that it was "the best shopping centre in Britain".

The ASA said that claim was based on a three-year-old survey, which was misleading.

However a quick look at the Metrocentre's website shows that they are still claiming to be the best in the country.

That is acceptable within the current rules, but should anyone complain after 1 March, the ASA would have to look at it again.

"I think anyone with a website needs to have a fresh look at it, and say 'am I totally happy about that?' " said Ian Twinn of ISBA, the industry body which represents British advertisers.

"Certainly if you have had a claim ruled against you by the ASA, now is a very good time to put that right before 1 March."

Extra workload

The ASA has spent a year preparing for the change, and is expecting a large number of extra complaints.

Last year 2,500 people complained about website content, but under the old rules their objections were not admissible.

"With 2,500 complaints, this does not mean they will all be upheld," said Mr Wilson.

Nevertheless the ASA is expanding staff numbers by 10%, to cope with the extra workload.

More on this story