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Ad regulator oversees social networking and companies' own sites from today

From today, companies' communication on social networking sites and their own websites will be subject to regulation by the UK advertising industry watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).01 Mar 2011

The ASA rules on potential breaches of the Code of Practice written by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP). From today it will apply to marketing on free services, as well as marketing in paid-for space.

"We already regulate internet ads in paid-for space, like banner ads, pop-ups and paid search results, but our new responsibilities mean that we now apply the same high standards to marketing communications on companies' own websites and in other non-paid space they control, like Facebook and Twitter," said an ASA statement.

From today the Non-Broadcast CAP Code will change so that, in the words of section I (h), it applies to: "advertisements and other marketing communications by or from companies, organisations or sole traders on their own websites, or in other non-paid-for space online under their control, that are directly connected with the supply or transfer of goods, services, opportunities and gifts, or which consist of direct solicitations of donations as part of their own fund-raising activities".

The ASA said that it has had 4,500 complaints about marketing material since 2008 that were not covered by the Code until this change but that it would be able to act on if they were made today.

"The extension to the ASA’s remit was in response to a recommendation from the UK ad industry, which has a long history of being committed to ensuring ads across media are legal, decent, honest and truthful. By extending the ASA’s remit, industry has responded to consumers’ demands," said the ASA.

The rule change does not affect everything published by a company. It covers only advertising and marketing material. Other material, such as press releases, investor relations information and editorial content, will be unaffected.

In a 14-page paper on how the new rules should be interpreted which was published last year, the ASA outlined how companies can tell whether or not material will be regulated by it or not.

"The assessment must consider, on a case-by-case basis, whether it can be reasonably assumed that the advertiser intended to sell something (the primary purpose of a marketing communication)," says CAP's guidance.

It said that material is likely to be covered by the Code if it has previously been used in an advert or includes an 'invitation to purchase', as defined in the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations.