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Why the ASA’s figures on online advertising complaints won’t be trustworthy

April 12, 2011 4 Comments

Update: They are now investigating it after all.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is one of those bodies, like the Press Complaints Commission, that needs to be sufficiently hard on the industry that funds it that no one thinks there's a need for stricter statutory regulation - but not so hard that, er, anyone thinks there's a widespread problem and demands stricter statutory regulation.

One way an industry regulator can paint a picture of everything being rosy is to downplay the extent to which there are complaints. So how will the ASA deal with its new remit regarding marketing claims made online? Well, from its "non complying digital advertisers" page, everything is good so far: "We currently do not hold any non-complying digital advertisers".

And from my experience of complaining about Nescafe's website under the new rules, it looks like the ASA will be brushing online complaints under the carpet - so its stats on how many there are will be meaningless.

Brushing my complaint under the carpet

Nescafe webpage about antioxidants

You don't need more antioxidants

I've made a complaint that this Nescafe page makes these unsubstantiated health claims:

  • Cell damage can be caused over time by an excess of free radicals in the body.
  • To fight these free radicals we need to get more antioxidants into our diet.
  • Coffee is a major contributor to your daily antioxidant intake … coffee has been shown to be one of the biggest contributors to overall antioxidant intake.

Here's the reply from the ASA (in italics) with my comments underneath:

Nestle Nespresso

Not a good start - I didn't complain about Nestle Nespresso. I complained about Nescafe Green Blend instant coffee.

Thank you for contacting the Advertising Standards Authority.


We have recently received a similar complaint to yours which is currently being investigated. The investigation is in relation to what we consider to be objective claims on a Nescafe poster which we have asked the advertiser to substantiate.

Is it that similar, though? How can I tell as you haven't confirmed what my complaint was or told me what the similar one is about. The only verifiable factual statement you've made relating to my complaint - the name of the product - you got wrong. I'm not sure I trust you on this similarity thing therefore.

The Investigations team has made substantial progress on this matter and, given that the claims concerned and the complaint are so similar to those that you mentioned and that it does not appear that your complaint raises any additional points, we shall not be adding your complaint to the current investigation.

If the other complaint was similar, I could live with mine being rolled up into it. But that's not what they're doing: "We shall not be adding your complaint to the current investigation".

Yes, they are throwing away my complaint - one of the first to be made under the ASA's new online advertising powers - even though it's "so similar" to one where they have taken steps to ask the advertiser to substantiate it.

If they adjudicate on the other claim and find it misleading, no mention will be made of my complaint about the online version of the claim. So the ASA won't have to add a large, international brand to their non-complying digital advertisers page.

As a result, once the investigation has been finalised we shall send you a copy of the adjudication, the findings of which will apply to all the advertiser’s marketing material. In the meantime, thank you for your patience.

OK, thanks.

A whitewash

Actually, not thanks. This looks like brushing things under the carpet.

The ASA Chairman, Lord Chris Smith, says "We have received over 4,500 complaints since 2008 about marketing communications on websites that we couldn't deal with, but from 1 March anyone who has a concern about a marketing communication online will be able to turn to the ASA.”

And having turned to it, maybe they'll be turned away?

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  • buyer beware says:

    Amaszon and its coupon business Living Social appeared 3 times on last week's ASA list of informally resolved cases. What are informally resolved cases? There were 46 last week against 14 adjudications.

    • Apparently they are:
      "Informal resolution - When a minor or clear cut breach of the Codes has been made, the ASA may resolve the complaint informally, so long as the marketer agrees to change or withdraw its marketing communication straight away. Marketers' co-operation in changing their marketing communication is reported on the ASA website as an informally resolved complaint."

      Sounds like another attempt to downplay the scale of the issue, even for "clear cut" breaches ...

  • buyer beware says:

    Week ending 13th April 14 adjudications 46 informally resolved
    Week ending 20th April 3 adjudications 51 informally resolved

    So next week I'm expecting

    Week ending 27th April 0 adjudications 62 informally resolved

  • buyer beware says:

    Informally resolved up to 90 week of 22nd June.

    Unfortunately as Amazon starts with A when I scrolled back a few weeks I noticed it has appeared on the informally resolved list every week bar one for the past five weeks.

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