What powers does advertising watchdog the ASA have and what are the penalties for retailers that breach the UK Advertising Codes?

What are we talking about this now?

Tesco was rapped by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) last week for making “ambiguous and misleading claims” in its comparison advertising. The watchdog investigated claims made in a press and

TV ad, which ran last October. Asda made the complaints, saying the ads were confusing and did not make the basis of the price comparison clear.

The ASA upheld complaints that both ads, which showed baskets of shopping suggesting that more products were cheaper at Tesco, were confusing and breached rules on “truthfulness” and comparisons with identified competitors.

How do retailers get caught out?

The strict rules laid down in the UK Advertising Codes are designed to ensure that ads do not contain anything that is likely to be misleading, harmful or offensive.

Retailers that make claims in their ads that cannot be substantiated, that denigrate competitors, mislead by exaggeration, omission or ambiguity or make unfair or unclear comparative claims are likely to run into trouble with the ASA.

What powers do the ASA have and who are they?

The ASA is the independent watchdog responsible for administering the UK Advertising Codes.

It was established in 1962 to maintain high standards in advertising on behalf of consumers, advertisers and society in general.

The independent ASA Council is responsible for adjudicating on investigated complaints and deciding whether or not an advertisement is in breach of the Codes.

What are the repercussions of breaching the Advertising Codes?

The immediate sanction available to the ASA is to have problem ads removed and to prohibit them from appearing again. ASA investigations can be costly for retailers both in terms of time and, when a complaint is upheld, having an ad withdrawn. Often, ASA rulings result in negative coverage in the media, which can also damage a brand.

The ASA is not a statutory body so it cannot issue fines or take advertisers to court. It can, however, liaise with Committee of Advertising Practice to prohibit media space to problem advertisers, withdraw trading privileges such as the discount on bulk mailings, require mandatory pre-vetting of non-broadcast ads and ultimately refer advertisers or broadcasters respectively to its legal backstops - The Office of Fair Trading for non-broadcast and Ofcom for broadcast - for consideration of statutory sanctions.