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Online advert complaints surpass those for TV ads, industry watchdog says

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The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) highlighted alcohol ads and gambling ads directed at children in a review of total complaints from May 2017 to May 2018, a period that saw online ads attract more public opprobrium than TV ads for the first time ever.

Internet adverts attracted 10,932 complaints about 9,951 online ads, compared to 9,466 for 4,666 TV ads. A record number of ads were also amended or withdrawn after ASA intervention (7,099), with the agency issuing 389,289 pieces of advice and training for businesses involved.

An alcohol ad targeted towards children via Snapchat and promotional material featured on gambling firms’ web sites that was likely to appeal to underage consumers came in for special attention from the ASA.

KFC’s ‘dancing chicken’ rap video was the most complained about ad of 2017, attracting 755 complaints, with other creative work from Moneysupermarket.com (‘strutters and builders’), Dove (‘breastfeeding’), McDonald’s (‘dead father’) and Match.com (‘kissing lesbians’) also featuring in the ASA’s top 10.

In total, in 2017 the ASA ordered companies to remove a record 7,099 ads that breached guidelines. The total number of complaints received, across all media and platforms, increased by 14 per cent year on year. The total number of ads amended or withdrawn in 2017 was up 47 per cent compared to 2016.

Guy Parker, chief executive of the ASA, said: “We want to make sure ads are responsible without consumers necessarily having to complain to us. By being more proactive, we’ve secured the amendment or withdrawal of more ads than ever before."

“At the same time, we’ve delivered a record amount of advice and training to help businesses get their ads right before they run. Our approach is helping make ads more responsible, which is in the best interests of consumers, businesses and wider society.”

The figures were published in the ASA’s annual report, Showing More Impact.

The ASA recently announced a series of new initiatives to protect consumers, including tough rules around misleading broadband speed claims - a perennial source of consumer complaints - and also new rules for event ticket selling websites that add on excessive service charges at the checkout. These new rules are due to come into force this month.

The ASA has also confirmed that it is actively looking at other deceptive online ads or those with dubious validity, such as those with sensational, ‘clickbait’ copy that then link the user to web sites selling products entirely unrelated to the advert.

In other online crackdowns, the ASA has tackled ‘free trial’ promotions that entrap consumers into extended subscriptions unless the consumer actively severs their subscription before the trial period ends; holiday adverts that promote compelling bargain prices that are no longer available, if they ever were; gender stereotyping, and social media ‘influencers’ who promote brands and products to their followers without explicitly labelling their posts as commercial or promoted content.

Major online platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have regularly come under fire for not adequately policing content posted and hosted on their sites. Ads have been spotted alongside extremist material on YouTube, owned by Google, and inappropriate ads have been served alongside video content intended for children.

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