A Level Playing Field for Advertising

​By Hilary Souter, CEO Advertising Standards Authority

​It was early in the 19th century that advertising began propping up newspapers and that was where it held sway: unchallenged “rivers of gold,” well into the 20th century. There were billboards, of course, and men draped with sandwich boards traipsing newly industrialised cities, but the ability to advertise on television, radio, social media and a myriad of other digital ways was unimaginable and many lifetimes away.

Today, keeping up with the proliferation of advertising platforms is a global challenge for advertising watchdogs – as demanding as keeping up with the Kardashians – and, on that subject, a US consumer advocacy group lodged a complaint in August last year with the (US) Federal Trade Commission against that famous family’s blurred take on advertising. The objection was to the Kardashians’ money-making endorsement of products in hundreds of Instagram posts that were not marked as

The Kardashians’ paid predilections might not ruffle this country’s complaints-driven, industry-funded Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), but comparable blurred, entirely unlabelled or offending “programmatic” new-era advertising directed at New Zealanders, can. For example, in June 2016 the ASA considered an advertisement for TheFlixTerminal, which appeared as “sponsored” content on Yahoo New Zealand’s website and claimed “Millions of Kiwis cancelling Netflix…” That was a lie, submitted an offended consumer, since Netflix does not have millions of customers in New Zealand.

Yahoo’s take was that it had had already blocked similar advertisements and intended to minimise them in the future, a good example of media self-regulation enshrined in ASA principles. The ASA looks at “programmatic” placement on a case-by-case basis, with good support from the media in blocking ads that are likely to breach the codes.

Social media, company websites, ads on billboards, on paper or in the ether – an advertisement is an advertisement. Advertising standards still apply. For the ASA, it doesn’t matter. If it’s an ad we’ll look at it, and if it’s an ad we believe it should adhere to our codes, not to mention a myriad of laws. Advertisers need to be aware of the risk of using more informal channels of communication, like social media, that might threaten to breach code compliance.

It is all about a level playing field. ASA codes and legislation that apply to advertising on television, radio, magazines, newspapers and billboards must also apply to social media platforms, websites, Youtube and “influencers”, where the intent is to promote a product or service and is within control of the advertisers.

In line with the burgeoning advertising world, the ASA has updated its definition of an advertisement. It has moved away from wording that listed media channels and now says: “Advertising and advertisement(s) are defined as any message, the content of which is controlled directly or indirectly by the advertiser, expressed in any language and communicated in any medium with the intent to influence the choice, opinion or behaviour of those to whom it is addressed.”

One thing that all these advertising “channels” have in common is that when they first appear it is something of a free-for-all and uncertainty reigns as to what rules apply. As a new platform gathers momentum and use it attracts the attention of critics and regulators.

When a new advertising platform is created we apply our standards to it and can deal with complaints about it. There are so many different ways of producing advertisements that seem not to be advertisements, but if the material is promoting a product, service or brand and directed at New Zealand consumers then our codes will most likely apply.

There is an invaluable reward for the industry doing it right from the outset and controlling its own advertising level playing field through judicious self-censorship, awareness of the ASA’s codes of practice and cooperation with the ASA: That reward is consumer trust.