Are ASA Rules About Paid Online Advertising Enforceable?

online advertising regulations image
Are online advertising regulations enforceable? Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius at

This week, the online advertising world was dealt a blow when the Advertising Standards Authority ruled an Oreo video campaign featuring stars from YouTube broke regulations. The ruling stated that if video blogging stars did not inform their audiences they were watching a paid advertisement they could be breaking the law.

But how easy is this online advertising law to enforce? What constitutes as a paid advertisement in today’s digital marketplace?

A Example Of Similar Online Advertising Tactics

The Oreo campaign isn’t the only example of paid online advertising. In 2012, Snickers was in the middle of a storm after Katie Price and Rio Ferdinand were paid for posting four promotional tweets each. In the Twitter updates, they wrote uncharacteristic statements followed by one claiming to “be themselves again” because they fed their hunger with a Snickers bar.

The ASA, in this instance, stated that no rules had been broken because the final tweet had included the hashtag #spon (sponsored tweet).

However, the first messages from the two celebrities didn’t include this hashtag. This is where vloggers could complain as it was the first four messages that would have drawn audiences in to read the entire conversation and see the final product reveal.

Therefore, were the celebrities being honest with their tweets? The ASA ruling states very clearly that ads must be “obviously identifiable marketing communications”. With this in mind, the first four tweets were not clearly labelled as such but were part of the marketing campaign.

That isn’t to say that Snickers did anything wrong. They used a clever strategy to gain awareness. However, the incident does highlight a problem with the ASA’s ruling: it will be hard to enforce.

How Hard Will The Online Advertising Ruling Be To Enforce?

The ASA stated in its ruling that the YouTubers’ video ads were similar to the style of their regular content posts. This is true and that is what Oreo wanted: to engage the audiences of the YouTube stars in their natural content style to achieve the most from the online advertising. The snickers’ campaign on the other hand was not similar to regular content from the celebrities.

It is also important to note that many of the vloggers included lines like “Thanks to Oreo for making this video possible” in the video description or in the video itself. The ASA stated this was not enough and it should have been at the beginning. However, the Snickers campaign did not include any recognition of being a promotional campaign until the end of the conversation.

In my opinion, the vloggers gave more warning than many affiliate marketers do. For instance, many affiliate marketers are offered free samples, test rides and money to test new products and advertise existing ones. However, not every piece of content they publish is labelled as a paid promotional piece.

Also, how much does it take for paid online advertising to break these regulations?

What if Oreo had instructed their vloggers to talk about something else while occasionally eating Oreos? What if Coke Cola instructs a vlogger to have a coke can in the back of their video content?

Product placement can be just as an effective online advertising medium and is appreciated by viewers – yet are these included in the regulations and is it enforceable? How would the ASA be able to tell that the vlogger wasn’t just drinking a coke and accidently left a can in the background or wasn’t hungry and didn’t need a quick Oreo snack?

Online advertising is becoming a minefield of questions in this modern age and although I believe that customers should not be misled, how can you monitor and enforce a market that is so diverse in opinions and strategies?

In addition, where do you draw the line? Does every tweet, Facebook update or blog post promoting your brand or product require an announcement in the title or at the top?

To be honest I think the ASA responded too much to the complaint from the BBC journalist. None of the content forced audiences to buy the product and unlike with adverts on television or the radio – users have the option to turn them off.

The digital audience is much better at self regulation than offline and therefore it only needs to come into play when customers are being forced into something – not when they are given the option to consume content from online brands that they know, like and trust.

Therefore, if audiences don’t like what you are publishing, they won’t read, watch or listen to it. In the online advertising world, businesses will have to respond to that and remember that the audience is king and they have unlimited options. So creating content your audience will want to interact with will do far more than these regulations.

What is your opinion on the online advertising ruling? Is it enforceable by the ASA?