The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has published new principles directed at advertisements that depict scenes or behaviours “which go against current government and scientific rules and guidelines that are aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19 through the population”.
In recent months, the ASA has received a number of objections from consumers concerning adverts that undermine the latest government guidance in respect of social distancing and the use of Personal Protective Equipment during the ongoing pandemic. In its statement published on 18 September 2020, the ASA referred to examples of such adverts, including scenes with crowds of people shown in close proximity to each other and others where people are seen inside shops not wearing facemasks.
In light of these complaints, the ASA Council has set out three new guiding principles that it plans to use going forward in its assessment of adverts. These are as follows:
- Adverts which actively discourage protective measures such as mask wearing or social distancing are likely to be irresponsible in all circumstances and therefore a breach of the [CAP Code]. The ASA will be likely to investigate such adverts with a view to banning them.
- Adverts which are responsibly created and which make explicit reference to the existence of the pandemic must, where relevant, show depictions of social distancing, the correct use of facemasks and other protective COVID-19 measures in line with current government advice at the time the adverts were created.
- Adverts which are responsibly created but which do not explicitly reference the existence of the pandemic would not be likely to need to depict coronavirus protective measures such as social distancing and the use of facemasks.
The ASA Council acknowledged in its statement that the new principles will be used as a starting point for each assessment and, in keeping with the ASA’s approach to the assessment of advertisements, it will give consideration to the “specific content and context” of each advert when considering whether an advert is compliant with the COVID-19 principles and the CAP Code.
Businesses should be aware that the ASA can require the amendment or withdrawal of any advertisement or promotional material that breaches the CAP Code and in the event of persistent breach, advertisers could also be required to have future adverts “pre-vetted”. While the ASA does not impose financial or criminal sanctions, the reputational damage that an advertiser may suffer as a result of an ASA ruling could be particularly damaging.
Since the commencement of the pandemic, the ASA has frequently updated its guidance on considerations for advertisers in light of COVID-19 and highlighted the importance of advertisers not misleading consumers with regard to the capabilities or effectiveness of products associated with protective measures. Businesses should ensure that they comply at all times with the relevant advertising rules under the CAP Code and that they are mindful of the ASA’s increased focus on the depiction of protective measures in adverts.