No – regulators like the ASA won’t censor the risqué, colourful and edgy world of advertising

Great advertising is risque, colourful and edgy – and it has a right to be. But for people like Matt Wilson, senior media relations officer for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), a line must be drawn between irreverence and offence. 14 years ago, when Matt joined the ASA, policing the vast landscape of social media was a non-existent issue. Now, the sheer amount of online content and the dawn of new forms of advertising as seen in influencer marketing has presented regulatory boards with an abundance of new challenges.

Tech giants such as Facebook and Instagram are facing increasing pressure to play a more prominent role in the policing of their platforms when asked who must claim responsibility for social’s media, Matt stresses that although organisations such as the ASA rely heavily on cooperation from the platforms, the book ultimately ends with the advertiser.


Matt Wilson ASA


“There are different constituents within that environment but the book, as far as the ASA is concerned, ultimately stops with the advertiser and the brand – not the publisher or influencer. However, if an advertiser or influencer is unwilling or unable to work with us, we can work with the likes of Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snap, etc. and use their power to have problem ads removed. But in and of itself, it’s not their role to do that.”

We’re all more than used to seeing #ad or #spon on our social feeds, but contrary to popular belief Matt claims it’s not mandatory that absolutely every form of online advertising has to be marked as such in this way. Advertisements that are clearly advertisements can walk free, as it is only in cases where the endorsement has not been made clear that publishers have to take this step. And while including a simple hashtag in the caption of an Instagram post is a quick and easy way to do this, it’s not the only way. There is a myriad of ways in which an advertiser or influencer can assure their content is clearly marked as an ad.

“We all watch Corrie or something on TV and, in between that programme, we recognise a commercial break in the same way as when we’re walking down the street we recognise a poster or a billboard. We recognise what’s advertising – but on social media, the lines can be blurred between editorial content, free opinion and what suddenly becomes advertising. But when something is obviously an ad, we don’t expect people to label it so. Because the person engaging with it will generally understand that that’s what they’re watching.”


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Yet audiences on social media are growing over-sensitive to this rule – particularly when it comes to influencers. In an effort to protect their own reputation and the reputation of their industry, we’ve begun to see a rise in self-policing among the influencer community. It is commonplace for influencers or an audience to try and drag other influencers who haven’t used #ad, often by alerting their activity to the ASA. But despite the additional workload, and though work remains to educate and inform on when exactly content needs to be marked, Matt says this trend is good news for regulators.

“Actually that’s good because it means the message is getting out there. It means people are more aware and people are engaged with the fact that there is a need to be upfront, transparent and clear. There is sometimes confusion about what is an ad and when it should be disclosed; in all instances, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s bad behaviour at work – just because someone’s publishing something that might have a commercial intent – there’s nothing wrong with that. We’re not here to stop that. ”

“Nike, for example, are in partnership with Wayne Rooney and everyone knows they have a commercial relationship, so even though we got a complaint about the transparency of one of Rooney’s sponsored Tweets, we didn’t ban it because we found it didn’t break the rules. It was so obvious that it was an ad.”


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Matt also tells us of a free advice service offered by the ASA, which he encourages everyone who is in doubt to use. Here, their resident experts, who are well versed in the codes and how they apply, can examine an ad campaign, a treatment or a creative and they will give free, independent, expert advice on whether or not it’s likely to stick to the rules.

“That’s a no-brainer as far as we’re concerned. They can give you a steer on the likelihood of it running into problems with the ASA; what’s the likely consumer takeout going to be? Are they going to be misled? Could you label it more clearly? Does it need to be labelled at all? That’s something we recommend to any influencer who’s unsure about whether or not they should label to take advantage of.”

But as Matt himself said, when we see an advertisement on television or on a billboard, we immediately understand that we’re being sold to. When influencer marketing first came about, of course, regulatory boards had to get involved, because it was unclear that we were being sold to. But as these new kinds of ads become more obvious to us and we get savvier at spotting a #spon, will the need to disclaim it go down?


Matt Wilson ASA


“We will likely get to a place where we know when an ad is an ad in the social media and influencer spaces because it’s just apparent to us. I don’t know if that will be because of one obviously discernible label or because over time we all become so savvy as consumers in that it’s just obvious, but I do think we will move away from that identifiable issue over time and deal more specifically with the claims that are being made about the product or services that they’re promoting, which are also subject to the rules.”

Whether you’re talking about a mid-roll YouTube ad, a billboard, a TV spot or an influencer endorsement, the rules won’t change. No matter the platform, ads shouldn’t mislead and they shouldn’t be harmful or offend. What has and will continue to change over time, however, is what defines offensive. And this is something the ASA has been forced to remain vigilant to.

“If you look at an ad shown even 20 years ago now, your jaw would drop. And vis-versa, if people from 20 years ago saw an ad from today they could be shocked at what they see. What we do is judge the context in which an ad appears, the medium in which it appears, the audience that’s likely to see it, the product that’s being advertised and also the prevailing standards – meaning we try to judge, as best we can, society’s morals and how the public is likely to view something. And we update our thinking in that area through public harm and offence research.”


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But of course, you can’t please everyone. Ultimately the ASA must make a relatively subjective decision while understanding and accepting the fact that they will never please everyone – and nor should they. As we said, advertising is risque, colourful and edgy. It can also be irreverent; it can be distasteful, explicit and extremely sensitive – all without breaking the rules.

“We’re not here to censor unduly or stop people being irreverent and creative. Some of the best campaigns are those that are jarring and are highly sensitive. Some of the best campaigns I’ve seen are for charity ads who deal with hard-hitting issues and are often deliberately uncomfortable and they challenge you as a viewer and as a member of society to think about something differently – be it child abuse, anti-drink driving, anti-smoking. They cause offence. We get hundreds of complaints – doesn’t mean we have to ban it. We weigh everything up of course, but advertisers have a right to be edgy and pushy – particularly when provoking the right emotion for the right reason.

“We can’t all agree and I don’t want to live in a world where it’s totally vanilla and nobody challenges and nothing is risqué – that’s half the point of advertising”

But as we move into 2019, the ASA faces new challenges like society’s fractured opinions around transgender issues or gender stereotypes, all while balancing the precarious act of ensuring the integrity of influencer marketing. To hear Matt’s account of the state of advertising and regulation in full, tune into Episode 012 of the Social Minds podcast. For those with a keen interest in assuring their own credibility, authority and authenticity, this is not one to miss.



This was taken from Social Minds, the UK’s first dedicated social media marketing podcast, brought to you by Social Chain. With each new episode, we cut through the BS to deliver you hard-hitting truths and unforgiving industry insights – exposing the shocking realities of how social media is affecting us in the here and now. To earn your thought-leader status, subscribe now.

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