Internet overtakes TV as most complained about advertising medium

A new trend of concern is the rise of copycat websites, which mislead people by appearing to be official government websites

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The internet has overtaken television as the most complained-about advertising medium in the UK, with campaigns from “fake” government websites causing a surge of concerns among consumers.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) reported a rise of 35 per cent in the number of people complaining about digital campaigns last year.

The number of complaints generated by online adverts increased by almost 3,500 to 13,477, with consumers using social media and petition websites to register their hostility to campaigns they considered misleading.

The total number of complaints about all UK advertising rose by a fifth last year to a record 37,073 complaints.

In its Annual Report, the ASA said: “We’re responding to and ensuring we keep pace with the rapidly changing media landscape, such as our ongoing work with vloggers.”

“The importance of that is underlined by the fact that, for the first time, the internet overtook television as the most complained about medium with 13,477 complaints about 10,202 ads, an increase of 35 per cent from 2013.”

A new trend of concern to the ASA is the rise of copycat websites, which mislead people by appearing to be official government websites, and often charge a premium for their services.

Two cases involving companies which offer passport renewal services appeared in the top 10 most complained about adverts across television, print and online.

The ASA upheld complaints against IQ Channels which advertised a “check and send” passport service with the claim: “Welcome to the UK Passport application assistance service.”

The company was told not to “misleadingly imply that they were the official HMPO” and was also criticised for failing to make clear that the fee for their service did not include the fee levied by HM Passport Office for a passport.

The body also took action against a website offering a “European Health Card” for a fast-track fee of £24.99. This was misleading since consumers would not have been aware that the European Health Insurance Card could be obtained from the NHS for free without having to utilise the website’s “verification process.”

Instead of including clear disclaimers on the site, the website published an application form on its home page, perpetuating the impression that it was an official channel.

The ASA launched a wider investigation into misleading claims, imagery and logos on “fake” government websites. It backed a Government awareness campaign #StartAtGOVUK, which warns those looking for official services to start at to avoid misleading websites.

Consumers also complained about a “sexist” email promotion by The Sun which offered online subscribers a date with a Page 3 model as a prize.

Guy Parker, ASA Chief Executive, said: “Although we received over 37,000 complaints last year, our highest ever, that’s not the full story. Social media platforms helped mobilise mass complaints about a small handful of controversial ads, but the total number of ads complained about was actually down.”

The number of television related complaints fell to 11,926 complaints compared with 2013. There was an 106 per cent increase in complaints about adverts seen in the cinema, because of the high levels of complaints about a campaign by, which used the word “booking” in place of a swear word.

The 1,768 complaints were not upheld because it was unlikely that children would have picked up on the joke.

Most complained about web campaigns

News UK & Ireland Ltd - The Sun

1,711 complaints; Upheld

An email sent to subscribers of The Sun’s Dream Team fantasy football competition featured a prize draw to win a date with a Page 3 model. Winners were also able to pick their date. The complaints, many of which were submitted as part of a campaign led by, believed the ad was sexist and objectified women.  We upheld the complaints that the email was offensive and irresponsible for presenting women as objects to be won.

Save the Children Fund

614 complaints; Not upheld

TV and video-on-demand ad featured a women giving birth to a baby with the help of a midwife and prompted complaints that the scenes were offensive, distressing and inappropriately scheduled. ASA did not uphold the complaints and agreed that the ad’s post 9 pm scheduling restriction appropriately reduced the risk of younger viewers seeing the ads and causing distress.

TADServices Ltd (

188 complaints; Sector investigation

A sponsored search on Google stated “Official UK Passport Application Lost, Stolen, renewal 24/7 Support. Adult Renewal Passport Child Renewal Passport Child Replacement Passport”.

Internet users challenged whether the claim “Official UK Passport Application” was misleading, because it implied the advertiser had no affiliation to the HM Passport Office.

Flora - Unilever UK Ltd

183 complaints; Not upheld

Animated YouTube ad for Flora Buttery showed two children making breakfast in bed for their parents and walking in on their parents ‘wrestling’. ASA received complaints that the ad was offensive and unsuitable for children to see. The ad was “suggestive” but did not contain any sexually graphic or distressing scenes.

IQ Channels Ltd (

177 complaints; Sector investigation

ASA received complaints that, which offers passport renewal services, misleadingly implied it was a Government site and that its terms and conditions were not clearly available.