Dodging the ASA bullet

Article  \  5 Aug 2013

Just about every retail business advertises its goods or services in one medium or another. There are rules around advertising that you should be aware of, to avoid breaching the Advertising Standards Authority codes.  

Here are the basics you need to be aware of.

The Advertising Standards Authority

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is a self-regulated body made up of representatives from the advertising and media industries. Its own stated goal is to ensure that "advertising complies with the law, is truthful, not misleading or deceptive and is socially responsible".

Membership in the ASA is voluntary. But all the major broadcasters, newspaper and magazine publishers, cinemas, direct mailing, outdoor, online and mobile advertising representatives belong.

The ASA's Advertising Codes of Practice

The ASA's Advertising Codes of Practice are standards in advertising that members of the ASA agree to adhere to. They cover everything from environmental claims, social responsibility in alcohol promotion, to the way ads target children.

The basic rules include the following.

  1. Don't pretend it's not an advertisement if it is.

  2. Don't mislead or deceive even by implication, omission or ambiguity.

  3. Adhere to prevailing community standards in decency, and avoid offensiveness.

  4. Don't play on fear or violence, and don't disregard safety unless it's truly justified.

  5. Don't denigrate a competitor or another product.

  6. Be accurate and genuine in the presentation of research, test or survey results, testimonials, and opinions.

  7. Respect people's privacy.

Failing the codes

The Advertising Standards Complaints Board hears complaints about advertisements falling short of the standards in the Advertising Codes of Practice. The complaints process is simple, and is as follows.

  1. Anyone can make a complaint. For the general public, there's no fee to make a complaint, but for a business there is.

  2. Complaints can be made in writing or through the ASA's website (

  3. The Chair of the Complaints Board will initially review the complaint to ensure it is suitable and comes within the jurisdiction of the Board. The complaint will then be sent to all parties for their comment.   

  4. The Board will then determine whether the Codes of Practice have been breached and a formal written opinion is distributed to all the parties and the media.

  5. If a complaint is upheld, the advertiser will be asked to immediately withdraw or amend the advertisement. Media members of the ASA will be asked not to broadcast or publish the ad.

What does the ASA do when advertising goes too far?

Sex sells, or so the adage goes. But when a fast food chain recently tried to use bikini-clad women to sells its burgers the ASA said 'no'!

Carl's JR recently ran an advertisement on the TV FOUR website featuring skimpily-clad women in a burger cooking competition. Someone complained and in response the ASA ruled that the use of "hyperbolic stereotypes" aimed at humour didn't mitigate the use of sexual appeal to sell an unrelated product. It concluded that the advertisement fell short of the decency and offensiveness principles of the ASA's Codes of Practice. The advertisement has now been withdrawn.

In another recent example, Baby Amber Teething's website claimed that amber beaded necklaces assisted in pain relief, breathing, and reducing body temperature when worn against a baby's skin. The Complaints Board ruled that the website contained unsubstantiated therapeutic claims and as such was misleading. The Complaint was therefore upheld.

Not all complaints are upheld though. A nationwide butcher's logo claiming "BEST PRICE; BEST QUALITY" was found not to be in breach of the Codes. The complainant argued that the words were an unsubstantiated comparative claim and therefore misleading. The Complaints Board was satisfied on the evidence presented that "BEST PRICE; BEST QUALITY" was a genuine aspirational mission statement and not comparative.

The rest of the story

Besides the advertising codes, retailers also need to be aware of the rules about comparative advertising and the Fair Trading Act.

Simply put…

It is natural to want to push boundaries. It's one way to get a product to stand out from the crowd. But the ASA sets boundaries in advertising that need to be adhered to. Those advertisements that go too far could find they are subject to the ASA's complaints process.

You need to think about everyone who will see the advertisement, not just those the advertisement is aimed at.

Every time you are planning on advertising your goods or services you need to have your duties 'top of mind'. Satisfy yourself before the advertisement is aired that no breach will occur. If in doubt, seek advice.

An edited version of this article was published in NZRetail Magazine, issue 720.