Digital Policy Guide

Posted on: Saturday 10 March 2018

Welcome to the IAB UK’s guide to digital advertising policy and regulation. Everything you need to know about existing rules and regulations, as well as the key policy issues and debates shaping the market, and all in one place. 

Share this

Below you will find answers to a range of questions designed to help you get to grips with everything you need to know about current digital advertising regulations. Simply click on the links to be taken to the relevant answer within this page. 

How is digital advertising regulated in the UK? Give me a one-minute overview.

Digital advertising in the UK is regulated by a combination of legislative rules (such as the Data Protection Act 2018, which implements the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) into UK law, or the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) (Amendment) Regulations 2011 and self-regulatory rules such as the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing, also known as the CAP Code. Self-regulation and good practice supplements legislation and fill the gaps where the law does not or cannot reach, offering an easier way of resolving disputes and adapting guidelines to new technologies and business models.

What are the basic rules businesses need to follow?

This can depend on whether you are an advertiser, agency, media owner or technology business. There are over 100 pieces of legislation affecting advertising in the UK. Two of the most prominent to be aware of are the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations of 2008 and the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) (Amendment) Regulations 2011.

The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations of 2008 relate to unfair, misleading or aggressive marketing practices and are channel-neutral. In respect of advertising policy, this is regulated by Trading Standards.

Where the law applies to non-broadcast advertising, it is incorporated into the CAP Code. The Code is a set of self-regulatory rules that applies to all advertising content in the UK, regardless of the channel used. The CAP Code states that all marketing communications should be legal, decent, honest and truthful. They should not cause serious or widespread offence, exploit a consumer’s inexperience, mislead, cause fear or distress, condone or encourage unsafe practice or violence. The CAP Code also has specific rules for a number of particular areas, such as age-restricted products (e.g. alcohol or gambling), marketing to children, health and beauty products and therapies, financial products, etc. 

The CAP Code is administered and enforced by the independent Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). See below for further details.

We have produced guidance to help brand owners and marketing practitioners comply with consumer protection law and the CAP Code provide transparency to consumers:

What about the use of data in online marketing? Is this regulated?

Yes. Most interactive advertising involves the collection and use of data to produce and measure relevant advertising, and the most basic and generic law governing all businesses in the sector is the Data Protection Act 2018. This implements the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) into UK law. Both rules regulate the handling of personal information, key to a myriad of services from digital advertising to financial services. The GDPR was agreed in 2015, after the European Commission reviewed and updated EU data protection rules in light of the technological changes that have taken place in the last decade. See our GDPR Hub to find out more on the new rules and their implications for businesses.

In addition to this basic law, companies providing relevant advertising should explore their obligations under the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) (Amendment) Regulations 2011 and the EU Framework for Online Behavioral Advertising.  The core principles of the EU Framework are also incorporated into the CAP Code. 

Who enforces compliance with the law?

The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations of 2008 is enforced by the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The CMA works to promote competition for the benefit of consumers, both within and outside the UK. Its aim is to make markets work well for consumers, businesses and the economy. However, in relation to advertising, Trading Standards is the legal backstop to the ASA. The collection and use of personal data is regulated by the Information Commissioner´s Office (ICO), the UK’s independent data protection authority, set up to uphold information rights in the public interest.  

What happens if an organisation does not comply with advertising self-regulatory rules?

The industry self-regulatory rules are administered and enforced by the independent Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The ASA is primarily funded by a 0.1 percent levy on ad spend, which is collected at agency level by the Advertising Standards Board of Finance (ASBOF).

The vast majority of advertisers abide by the rules. However where the ASA upholds a complaint and the advert or marketing communication is not taken down voluntarily, the ASA may impose sanctions to enforce compliance. The number and seriousness of sanctions that the ASA can apply vary depending on the type of infringement but can include: the publication of the ASA rulings on their weekly bulletin, which brings adverse publicity for the advertiser; CAP members may revoke trading privileges and recognition, making it difficult to run campaigns; or in severe instances, referring the advertising to Trading Standards or Ofcom for further action.

If you have any doubts about the creative you are developing please contact CAP's Copy Advice team.

Are there any sector specific rules or organisations that I should be aware of?

Yes. Depending on the sector, there are different groups who put in place rules for advertising. Many of these are complemented by the CAP Code.

  • Alcohol

Marketers should be aware of the Portman Group. This organisation advises on responsible marketing of alcohol products. Their Guide to Digital Marketing (2009) is a great resource for those planning a digital campaign. As well as giving advice on the responsible marketing of alcohol, they also provide guidance on exposure in online environments.

Section 18 of the CAP Code covers alcohol marketing. 

  • Financial Advertisements

The FCA (Financial Conduct Authority) regulates the marketing of financial products and they have produced guidance on financial promotions in social media. The guidance covers character limitations, the use of images, non-intended recipients and consumers forwarding or sharing communications. The guidance is available on the FCA’s website.

Section 14 of the CAP Code covers the marketing of financial products. 

  • Gambling

The Gambling Commission is the body that licenses gambling in the UK. Under the Gambling (Licensing) Act 2014 only gambling operators licensed by the Gambling Commission are permitted to advertise to consumers in Great Britain.

The Gambling Commission offer guidance on the relevant CAP Code rules related to gambling and have produced a guide to gambling advertising codes.

The ASA can refer advertisers who breach the regulations to Ofcom or the Gambling Commission for potential additional sanctions. The ASA have produced a factsheet about the gambling advertising rules, including information about the review they carried out in 2014.

Section 16 of the CAP Code covers gambling promotions. 

  • Medical Products

For the advertising of medical or pharmaceutical products, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) is the regulator.

Section 12 of the CAP Code covers marketing communications for medical products. 

  • Children

The IAB UK supports the cross-industry Media Smart initiative that aims to increase media literacy among children.

In 2014 we launched a video with Media Smart called ‘What does the ad say’, as part of Media Smart's resources for parents. The Media Smart website was revamped and re-launched in summer 2015, and includes brand new resources for secondary school teachers covering advertising in social media. There is also a new parents guide to advertising and social media. For further information about marketing to children, see our most recent Fact Sheet.

In 2017, CAP introduced new rules to provide children with greater protection from adverts for food and drink products which are high in fat, sugar and salt. Advertisers, creative and media agencies and publishers must not target ads for these products at under-16s in non-broadcast media. You can find out more in our FAQs, here.

I still have questions – who do I contact?

For any questions on the work of IAB UK contact our policy team and if you want to stay up to date with regulatory developments that affect your business. Sign-up to our policy focus emails by emailing

Share this


Related content

IAB UK GDPR checklist

The 25 May 2018 marks the day from which the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will apply to every company doing business in the EU, including...

Learn more

Content and native disclosure guidelines version 2 - February 2018

Learn more

A Gold Standard breakfast at the Houses of Parliament

Weve's Managing Director, Martin Weller, writes on the back of the IAB's Gold Standard breakfast at the Houses of Parliament.

Learn more

Digital inclusion: the role of advertising

Our policy briefing sets out how the ad-funded internet helps to support digital inclusion, which is vitally important for everyone in our digital...

Learn more

Why digital advertising works

Discover why digital advertising is effective for reaching your customers and building brands.