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Making False Claims on your Web Site Can Lead to Fines and Penalties

Published on February 21, 2011
Tags: Web Site Law

From 1 March 2011, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) has new powers over UK company web sites and online marketing material. This article explains more about how a change in the powers of the ASA might affect your organisation's online strategy.

Under current advertising laws, the Advertising Standards Agency can only monitor and take action over traditional forms of advertising. This includes billboards and adverts on television, as well as advertising in newspapers. Until now, however, it couldn't monitor the content of company websites.

These rules are changing on 1st March 2011, giving the ASA the power to pass judgement on company websites and other online commercial promotion. This means that consumers will be able to complain to ASA if they feel a website features indecent, misleading or false content. The upshot of this is that the ASA will have the power to force companies to pay fines and change the content of their websites if they are found to be in breach of the rules, even if the content in question is not in the form of a traditional online advert.

Therefore, while the current law allows companies to show adverts on their websites that it wouldn’t be allowed to broadcast on television, from March 1st all of this will change. So what does this mean for companies who rely on their websites for business? What will be the impact of the new rules?

On the one hand, it could be argued that this is a positive shift for consumers. It means that all claims made on company websites will have to be true, or else they would have grounds to make a complaint. This helps to protect consumers’ rights and promote quality of service. It also might mean that companies make more of an effort to keep their websites up to date – such as by not relying on old surveys or out of date endorsements to promote themselves – which will be good for both web users and the companies themselves.

On the other hand, it potentially creates the potential for companies to land themselves in hot water despite their best efforts. After all, two different companies in the same industry could both easily proclaim themselves to have "the best customer service in the business" because different customer surveys – even if conducted at the same time – could produce different results, but it would still look suspicious to have dual claims and might lead to complaints.

The new ASA monitoring powers also apply to any other web software that may be controlled by a company. So, for example, if they have a blog, social networking account (Facebook page, Twitter account, LinkedIn company page, etc.) or paid search advertisements (Google AdWords, etc.), these will still be subject to the new scrutiny rules. There is a distinction made between marketing and editorial content (only marketing communication falls under the new rules), but often the line can be blurred on websites and so companies may prefer to be cautious rather than risk the wrath of customer complaints.

This opens up the possibility that many websites are going to have to be restructured and re-written in order to ensure compliance with the new ASA rules and to be on the safe side when making marketing claims. All of this opens up a window of opportunity for copywriters, who are likely to receive requests to help companies redevelop the content of their websites once the new rules come into effect.

As well as web content and marketing communications, there is also the potential that other aspects of companies’ online profiles will have to be restructured, providing another opportunity for copywriters. For example, many online businesses take steps to improve their Google rankings through search engine optimisation. This might include profiling ‘recommended links’ on a piece of editorial content, writing a blog post tailored around a certain key phrase or product, or perhaps posting sponsored tweets on Twitter. While these may not be directly construed as marketing in the traditional sense, the new ASA powers make the world of SEO far harder to navigate, as it opens up the question of what counts as marketing and what, for example, counts as opinion or editorial copy. With many companies outsourcing their SEO efforts too, it may require the company to take a much closer role in what the outsource company is posting online on their behalf. And, with many SEO outsource suppliers being based outside the UK it might be that the knowledge and experience isn't available to them to provide the level of service needed to protect the company.

Officially, if an individual posts a comment on a website remarking on a product or service they have received, this does not fall under the jurisdiction of ASA. If a company then uses that comment in its online marketing material, though, it will fall under the jurisdiction. This makes the practice of checking websites for truth and honesty more important than ever before. Another example would be product pages advertising a particular item or service. If a company was selling an action figure, for example, but the picture promoting the toy on their website showed the action figure surrounded by a larger play set that wasn’t actually included in the price, then someone might complain that it constitutes false advertising and an investigation might be conducted as a result.

This could prove to be a window of opportunity for web content writers with the skill to write good copy and the ability to check that what they are writing is all factually correct. Having a good copywriter to take care of things also allows the company to get on with business without having to worry that they might be fined for false advertising.

Of course, ASA won’t be proactively searching the web for breaches of its rules; the whole thing depends on consumers raising issues as they come across them so it’s possible the real impact of the new rules will be minimal. Last year, 2500 complaints were made to ASA about web content but they couldn’t be investigated because the powers didn’t exist. There is no way of telling whether any more complaints than this will be made once web content does fall under the ASA remit or whether it will stay roughly the same. However, from March 1st the potential will be there for false or misleading claims to be investigated and so ultimately, it’s much better to be safe than sorry and take steps to ensure company websites are entirely truthful, both in their marketing and editorial content.

More information is available directly from the ASA web site at www.asa.org.uk.

Alternatively, if you are concerned about the impact of the new ASA regulations on your web site, and perhaps do not have the time or experience to review your site or marketing yourself, contact us today to arrange a consultation.

By Chelsey Evans

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