The ASA has issued its annual report for 2021. Among other things, it highlights ways in which the ASA is using technology to tackle misleading and irresponsible ads online.

The ASA has also described how its use of AI is helping it to identify and take enforcement action against influencers who fail to disclose when their posts are ads.

The annual report

The report provides a breakdown of the complaints handled by the ASA as well as the advice, training and compliance work undertaken by CAP over the past year. The ASA received a record 43,325 complaints (about 22,115 adverts). Of those:

  • Online remained the most complained about advertising media making up close to 50% of all complaints (20,735) but almost two thirds of adverts complained of.
  • Complaints about online ads were up 19% on 2020.
  • TV was the second most complained about advertising media, making up close to 50% of all complaints.
  • TV complaints increased by 44% compared with 2020 (although one of these was the Tesco ad about Santa with a covid passport which was the second most complained ad of all time, attracting over 5000 complaints).  However, there was a 5% decrease in the overall number of TV ads complained about.
  • Complaints about influencer posts (4,889) increased by 20%.

There was also an increase in complaints about video on demand, paid-for ads on websites, social media and apps and audio podcast or on demand, while there was there was a decrease in complaints for own site website, social media or app ads and ads appearing in games.

20,456 ads were amended or withdrawn due to ASA/CAP action. CAP delivered 866,145 pieces of advice and training to businesses on the advertising rules.

Complaints by nation

The ASA has also reported on complaints broken down across the UK for the first time. The breakdown provides an insight into distinct variations between the home nations. It says that proportionately, people in Scotland are more inclined to lodge a complaint about an ad, whether on the grounds of misleadingness, harm or offence, than people in any of the other nations. People in Northern Ireland and Wales are less likely to lodge complaints about ads, although people in Wales were more likely to complain about issues relating to harm and offence in ads than people from England and Northern Ireland.

It’s the first year the ASA has run these figures, so there is no comparative data from which mid to long-term trends can be identified. It is worth noting that the ASA ran a national ad campaign across Scottish media about its role, which may have had an impact on the higher complaint figures in Scotland.

Key themes

The report also contains the key themes and issues being considered by the ASA, including environmental claims, body image, harmful racial and ethnic stereotypes and cryptoasset advertising, as well as age-restricted ads seen by children.

Using AI help tackle unlabelled influencer advertising

As well as the Annual Report, the ASA has announced that it is carrying out a project using AI to capture and analyse all Instagram Stories produced by ‘high-risk’ influencers who are on the ASA’s radar for being unwilling or unable to clearly and consistently label when their content is an ad. Using machine learning algorithms to automatically identify potential ads in these posts, the ASA can categorise the images and videos influencers post. It can also search influencer’s content for possible ad labels, giving it the ability to identify which are likely to be ads but are not disclosed as such, in breach of the CAP Code.

The immediate results from this project are:

  • The ASA is now monitoring dozens of high-risk influencers each week;
  • It has captured and analysed more than 80k Instagram Stories for potential non-compliance since the project started; and
  • It is capturing and analysing nearly 20k Instagram Stories each month.

The ASA is looking to scale up this process, tracking what influencers are talking about and examining trends in ‘tagging’ and ‘mentions’. It is also increasing its monitoring of companies who team up with influencers. Repeat offenders who are unable or unwilling to follow the rules will face an escalation of sanctions and enforcement action. As part of that, the ASA is currently considering referring the worst offenders to statutory authorities for consideration of legal sanctions as well as working directly with the host platforms to delete problem accounts.