Advertising regulator to clamp down on Internet

Former culture secretary Lord (Chris) Smith, the new chairman of the Advertising Standards Agency, has pledged to respond to intensifying public disquiet about failure to clamp down on bogus or misleading commercial claims on the web. Lord Smith, who takes up his role today, reckons the industry is moving too slowly to update its rules and to bolster consumer confidence in the internet. In his first interview in the job, the former minister told the Financial Times: "Progress is slow, and public concern is rising. "If I were a benevolent dictator (I would say) probably: 'No, this is not a quick enough pace.' " The internet was the fastest-growing source of complaints to the ASA last year. The total number of cases it generated overtook direct mail for the first time. But the regulator was unable to rule on nine out of 10 internet complaints because they involved editorial website claims. The ASA remit only covers paid-for advertising on the internet. Lord Smith does not believe the ASA could regulate editorial claims made on websites in the same way it does advertising on television or in the press. Industry executives, however, expect he will use his tenure to push for some form of internet agreement throughout the advertising sector. That could be based upon a voluntary certification scheme for websites, backed by the regulator, similar to those designed to increase shoppers' confidence in e-commerce. By itself, the ASA does not have the power to reform the rules. It upholds separate codes written by two industry committees, BCAP and CAP, regarding advertising that appears on broadcast and on non-broadcast media. These require advertisers to prove their claims and to make pricing transparent, as well as to observe guidelines in regard to taste and other sensitive areas, such as marketing to children. CAP is due to review its code during the next few years. The Office of Fair Trading - which recently cracked down on websites advertising bargain flight prices without showing taxes or other charges from the outset - says it would welcome efforts to consider extending the ASA's remit. That long-mooted reform has always prompted resistance by some media owners, notably newspaper publishers, concerned about bringing editorial content under a new regulatory body. Lord Smith agreed: "The ASA can't go wading in with heavy boots and dictating to anyone . . . What I certainly want to do over the course of the next few months is to have a discussion with the industry about whether we can move forward. "From all the things it tells us, the public views websites as effectively advertising tools for a company or organisation. It would like to have some kind of reassurance about what is said on those sites. The ASA can potentially help with that." "The danger is always that people get so frustrated at some level of governmental regulation, be it national or EU level, that someone steps in with a statutory proposal. I think that would be deeply to be regretted and difficult to implement." Lord Smith hoped the ASA could provide better feedback to advertisers about issues of concern to consumers or politicians, such as what role advertising may play in exacerbating child obesity. Restrictions on advertising food and soft drinks during television programmes likely to be viewed by children were recently introduced because of health concerns. Bargain flights and 'miracle' cures cause most concern Websites selling bargain flights, "miracle" diet cures or encouraging children to interact with food and soft drink brands have attracted most concern for falling outside the UK system of advertising self-regulation, writes Carlos Grande. The Office of Fair Trading already intends to bring enforcement proceedings against some travel groups which do not include fixed, non-optional costs in the basic price at which they advertise flight tickets. The European Commission is also considering a proposal that would require travel providers to quote prices inclusive of non-optional taxes and fees. In a study of internet shopping, the OFT found that in 42 per cent of the flights it surveyed, the final price of a flight was higher than the initial one advertised. The mean increase in price between start and finish of the transaction was 131 per cent - a much bigger figure than the OFT found when buying electricals or music online. The competition watchdog warned the industry to cease the practice in February and a deadline for compliance passed in May. The OFT can act against advertisers using 1988 regulations. Ultimately, it can seek a court order preventing publication of the advertisement. But it will usually only do so after establishing that a referral to the Advertising Standards Authority would not suffice.

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