U.K. Ad Police Alter Rules to Include All Online Marketing

Skeptics Worry New Regulations Will Be Damaging to Creative Freedom

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It's a huge project, and some say it can't be done, but March 1, the U.K. Advertising Standards Authority began regulating not only paid-for online advertising, but all online marketing communications.

U.K.-based companies must also now adhere to the ASA's "legal, decent, honest, truthful" code that sets the standard for British advertising in online and offline worlds. Simple enough, you might think, and many in the industry believe that this extension of the ASA's remit will bring extra credibility to companies' online activities, marking a "coming of age" of the internet.

But the web can be a wild place, and some people like it that way. Damian Mitchell, creative technologist at Glue Isobar, said, "It was the openness of the internet that inspired many of us in the industry to get involved with digital in the first place, since it provided a no-holds-barred platform on which to express and share ideas, regardless of how distasteful or inspirational they were. We should be able to embrace the world in all its glory, regardless of our own moral, ethical or cultural perspectives."

Consumers, it can be argued, have long been able to make up their own minds about what is acceptable on the web. It was back in 2006 when consumers busted Sony PlayStation's "All I Want for Christmas" video -- a viral marketing campaign masquerading as genuine fan-created content -- forcing the company to admit in a statement, "Guess we were trying to be just a little too clever."

Toby Horry, managing partner at digital agency Dare, said: "The point is that all brands should always be legal, decent, honest and truthful. In many ways this isn't that significant a change. The problem is that the output is so diverse that no single set of rules can cover all eventualities."

Mr. Horry cites the example of Queensland Tourism's hugely successful "Best Job in the World" campaign, which was a marketing campaign masquerading as a job ad. The U.K. codes stipulate "marketing communications must be obviously identifiable as such," which on paper means that the Queensland Tourism campaign would fall foul of the codes and be banned.

James Welsh, co-founder of Britain's biggest entertainment-news website, Digital Spy, is also skeptical. "I am very wary about our ability to agree, across government and industry, on a framework that is flexible enough to set ground rules ... that preserve the freedom of the imagination that has transformed the way lives are led and content is consumed," he said.

The ASA is well aware of the complications of the task at hand. "It's been an arduous, technical process, looking into how it will work and how we will fund it," said spokesman Matt Wilson.

Costs include increasing staff by 10%, a comprehensive program of education (including ad campaigns targeting businesses and consumers), a nonstop flow of confidential advice to marketers, and an industry panel, which will meet every quarter for the next two years to review how the new regulations are working.

Google donated a one-off payment of $322,000, and a 0.1% levy on pay-per-click ads is also contributing to funding.

One of the issues that has raised the most questions is how to define the line between editorial and advertising on company websites. "There are some issues about freedom of speech. It is important that businesses have the freedom to speak about their brands editorially and to their investors, but I think there will be very few cases where this can't be agreed," said Ian Twinn, director of public affairs at the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers. "If it contains a call to action or incitement to purchase, it's an ad. If it looks and feels like an ad, the rules will apply. I think we will be able to make grown-up decisions and stick to them."

Overall, Mr. Twinn welcomes the new rules. "This is an advertiser-requested extension to the codes," he said. "Our members were aware that consumers thought their websites were included, and wanted the gap to be covered."

Another area of dissent between marketers and consumers has been the proliferation of "advergames" aimed at children, a controversial battleground that was one of the spurs to take regulation beyond paid advertising. They may well come up for investigation, but have not been the subject of separate rules.

Nigel Gwilliam, digital consultant at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, said, "The ASA will be guided by the kind of complaints they get. The internet needs regulation; without it, brands and businesses will lose the confidence of the consumer."

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