In one of the biggest changes to the internet in recent years, companies' websites are to be checked for accuracy and decency for the first time. Until now, businesses online have been able to make false claims for cut-price holidays, computers and other goods and services on their own websites with little prospect of action by trading standards officers.
But Guy Parker, the chief executive of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), said the organisation would monitor and regulate such claims in future. The change follows the biggest shake-up of advertising codes in 50 years, which will bring in tougher rules on marketing to children and environmental claims and allow the advertising of condoms before the 9pm watershed. A plan to allow commercial pregnancy advice services to advertise on television has been delayed.
The extension of the ASA's digital remit, set to be announced next month, is separate to that shake-up which comes into force on 1 September. At present, Britain's advertising regulator rules only on banner ads and other conventional online advertising. As well as bringing a swathe of banks, energy suppliers and supermarkets under its rules on truthfulness, decency and misleading customers, it will allow campaigners to challenge company claims, such as the environmental-friendliness of cars or the healthiness of fast food.
In the ASA's headquarters on High Holborn, central London, Mr Parker, 39, acknowledged there had been a regulatory gap online which had infuriated the public. "We've got a situation over the past two or three years where we've been receiving around 2,000 complaints a year about marketing communications on companies' own websites, from members of the public mostly, and we're having to turn them away because they're not subject to the codes," he said.
"And members of the public quite reasonably say: 'Why not? It looks like advertising to me. They're making claims similar to those made in conventional ads, why isn't there regulatory system doing something about that?' "
Around 80 per cent of complaints about websites are because customers feel mislead, most often to do with the sale of ordinary goods and services such as computers and holidays. According to Mr Parker, politicians have been keen to plug the regulatory gap because of concern about more sensitive issues such as alcohol and gambling.
"People are actually complaining about the bread and butter stuff we do day in and day out – companies exaggerating the benefits of products and services, unclear pricing, qualifications that aren't there or not prominent enough, confusing messages about goods and services. Adjudicating on these is really no different to the job we're doing in conventional media. It's just there's more work," he said.
The ASA is advertising's self-regulatory body, funded by a 0.1 per cent levy on advertising spending. As the industry has shrunk during the recession, so has its budget – from £8m to £6.4m over the past two years – while its work has expanded. As well as enforcing the new codes and extending its digital remit, it may also start regulating "online behavioural advertising", where ads are targeted at individuals based on their online habits. "Online behavioural advertising is an emerging issue and I hope that the advertising regulatory system ensures that is properly regulated," Mr Parker said.
"It's an interesting technological development; it's here and there are issues around consumer choice about whether or not data should be used in this way. People get jittery for good reason about data they feel is personal.
"Often the data is linked to the IP address of the computer you are using rather than you as an individual. You might not want ads being served to other people using your PC based on your browsing history."
An example: "Say I visit a wine merchant's site but I don't make a transaction and my six-year-old son is then using the same computer and goes to the Cbeebies website, or some website that uses advertising, and he is served an ad for that wine store, which thinks that it's me sitting there.
"Now potentially this is a useful piece of advertising: I might have been interrupted and had to close down my browsing session; I might appreciate a quick click to go back to where I was in the transaction, but with a product like alcohol, there are potential sensitivities to that being served to a child on a child-related website."
The ASA is often criticised for acting too slowly, for banning ads that have already stopped appearing anyway. While conceding that there are cases of "shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted," Mr Parker said it would be too expensive to vet ads in newspapers and magazines. Instead, the ASA sometimes tells firms to pull ads without formally investigating.
"There's a lot that goes on that prevents unacceptable advertising appearing in both broadcast and non-broadcast that isn't visible to people. Clearcast and the radio advertising clearance centre do a huge amount of pre-vetting of TV and radio commercials before they appear, and they are stopping a lot of ads that would be problematic from appearing in the first place.
"Last year, we brought about the amendment or withdrawal of about 2,500 ads in broadcast and non-broadcast media. A significant proportion of those weren't amended or withdrawn as a result of a formal investigation that resulted in an adjudication on our website – it was a result of compliance activity."
Increasingly, he said, companies were employing lawyers to fight investigations; the ASA was "often now" dealing with solicitors. Some media law firms have been criticised for being overly aggressive and intimidating. "It can be, from our point of view, time-consuming," Mr Parker said. "We will sometimes feel we are having to answer the same point several times. We are sometimes subject to delaying tactics.
"There are one or two solictiors firms," he said. "And so we have 'old friends' who are solicitors who will act for clients and who we know well. And it's fine; it keeps us on our toes."
Are some of these legal approaches intended to be intimidatory? "Yes, and it can be unhelpful. Despite the fact that advertising or complaining parties think it is furthering their cause, it can sometimes have the opposite effect. But they have the right to do it. Anybody should be able to make the strongest possible case. But then it's within our gift to say 'enough is enough', we are going to reach a decision now. We are good at standing up to intimidation," he said. "We are absolutely not an organisation that backs down from the threat of legal action."
What the ASA looks out for
Several beauty companies have had ads banned over the past couple of years for exaggerating the effect of eyeliners and facecreams. The use of airbrushing to smooth away wrinkles is contentious. The Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson has called for warnings on ads with digitally enhanced models to inform women that they are viewing unattainable images. While low, complaints about airbrushing rose from eight to 16 this year, and they claimed high-profile casualties. In December, the ASA ruled Olay's Definity eye-cream campaign had made Twiggy look far younger than her 59 years. While backing airbrushing, Mr Parker said that "after" pictures of alleged efficacy of products should not mislead viewers.
From Shell's claims that the extraction of tar sands in Canada helps the environment to spurious eco-claims about cleaning products, firms are keen to make the most of their environmental credentials. BMW, Renault and Lexus have all had ads banned over the past two years for suggesting that their cars are less polluting than they really are. The ASA warns advertisers that sweeping or absolute claims such as "environmentally friendly" or "wholly biodegradable" can rarely be justified.
* Fast food
Advertisers often make exaggerated claims of healthiness for food and drinks. Last July, the ASA banned a KFC ad for stating that its chicken "came in fresh this morning" when it was delivered to stores only three times a week. In October, the ASA banned Coca-Cola's posters for VitaminWater, which claimed they gave "superhero-like powers". But in April, Kellogg's promotion of Coco-Pops as an after-school snack was deemed to be socially responsible.
Plans to allow pregnancy advice clinics to advertise on TV prompted thousands of objections last year, many from religious groups, and the idea has been put on hold. The UK's first TV commercial for pregnancy services, by the non-profit-making Marie Stopes clinic, was screened in May. It triggered 1,054 complaints to the ASA, which ruled that the ad had not breached its code. It said: "It was an ad for a general pregnancy advice service for women who wished to learn about and discuss their options which might include, but were not limited to, abortion."