Why the joint letter from ITV, Channel 4 and Sky doesn’t paint a clear picture about regulation and standards

Posted on: Friday 10 July 2020 | James Chandler - Chief Marketing Officer, IAB UK

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In a piece published on Wednesday in The Times by the CEOs of Channel 4, ITV and Sky, a number of claims were made about online advertising - claims that were, somewhat ironically, often neither decent, honest or truthful. Of course, the work in improving online advertising is ongoing but our view is that the opinions expressed in the article didn’t represent the truth about a £15 billion industry that is regulated by the ASA, invests heavily in the cost of self-regulation and offers consumers and advertisers much more choice about their advertising than broadcast media alone.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the regulation currently in place for online advertising. Most websites and services that don’t charge people to use them, from news sites to maps, are funded by advertising. That advertising is regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in exactly the same way – and to exactly the same level – as all other non-broadcast advertising, such as in print, on billboards, in direct mail or at the cinema.

Clear codes exist to ensure advertising is not harmful, misleading or offensive, and the ASA enforces these diligently, requiring ads that breach the code to be changed or withdrawn, or referring advertisers to other bodies such as Trading Standards where necessary.

In 2019, 16,767 complaints about online media were resolved by the ASA. It’s worth noting that this compares to just under ten thousand complaints about cases on television, which is stark given investment in online advertising was three times greater than on television last year.

It’s our view that the article failed to distinguish between that which does not follow the CAP Code and that which breaks the law. The IAB and our members have long been calling for law enforcement action in the latter space. The specific instance of the use of Martin Lewis’ image is fraud, and is illegal, and there is no platform or body that would say otherwise, or would suggest that this is a matter that can be tackled at source by advertising self-regulation.

The claim that online platforms set out to deliver as much advertising as possible to as many people as possible does not tell the whole story. Research from the Advertising Association shows that bombardment (measured by volume, repetition, obtrusiveness and irrelevance) is an issue across all media - broadcast and non-broadcast. Digital advertising offers more nuance to both advertisers in terms of targeted, relevant creative and placement, and to users who have control and choice over the advertising they see. 

Reading the article, you could be forgiven for thinking that the internet is a “free for all”, a phrase that echoes claims about the internet being the “wild west”. But as CAP Chairman James Best pointed out in the ASA 2019 Annual Report, “Jibes about the ‘wild west of the internet’ are seriously outdated (at least as far as advertising is concerned), as the ASA’s stats demonstrate.”

It is therefore important to remind ourselves of just a fraction of the work already in place to ensure that is not actually the case: 

  • Firstly, most ads online are good, as demonstrated by the relatively low number of ASA complaints - in relation to the high volumes of online advertising - detailed above 

  • Facebook (who also own Instagram) has over 35,000 people working on safety and security. In 2019, Google (who also own YouTube) blocked and removed 2.7 billion bad ads - more than 5,000 per minute. This is on top of sophisticated AI which means thousands of ads get blocked before even being seen by a user. It is simply not true to suggest that there is no pre-vetting of online ads.

  • 73% (£11.45bn) of digital advertising investment in 2019 was spent with companies who adhere to the IAB UK Gold Standard, part of which requires them to implement ads.txt to eliminate ad fraud and also to adhere to the standards of the Coalition for Better Ads, avoiding bombardment and interruptive or invasive formats. In addition, the Gold Standard requires all certified companies to adhere to the JICWEBS DTSG Good Practice Principles regarding brand safety.

  • Within the last month, the ASA and IAB UK launched a UK Scam Ad Alert system in partnership with the major online platforms, so that responsible companies can help to play their part in tackling the appearance of bogus ads that leave consumers out of pocket.

The article acknowledges the transformational effect the internet has had on all areas of modern life. It therefore requires practices, standards and regulation that reflect that transformation. In our opinion, retro-fitting a pre-vetting system made for broadcast media - as the piece implies should be the case - is not the right approach for an ecosystem as large and complex as digital.

The IAB continues to work with our members, the ASA, the Advertising Association and government to develop and maintain effective self-regulation. It is in everybody’s interests - including broadcasters - that the advertising industry thrives and is responsible and effective. Agreeing a way forward that meets those goals and supports the free internet is a crucial part of building a sustainable future for digital advertising. 


IAB UK contacted The Times for the right to reply. You can read James Chandler's letter in The Times here.

Written by

James Chandler

Chief Marketing Officer, IAB UK

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