There aren’t a lot of rules on the Internet. The World Wide Web is a wild west environment where the standard rules regarding sales tax, privacy, and decorum don’t apply. All of which makes it seem like a strange place for self-regulation. And yet, that’s the mission of the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council, the industry body that regulates advertising not only on traditional media such as print, TV, and radio, but also online.
Given how quickly advertising has expanded on Internet sites and social media, that’s not just a tricky job—it’s a very big one. This year, the Commissioner of the Federal Trade Association delivered a keynote at a summit hosted by one of ASRC’s constituent organizations (the Electronic Retailing Self-Regulation Program, or ESRP), focusing on the group’s efforts in the digital age.
How I See It
- The ARSC’s work is of great value to brands and the agencies that serve them, as it builds public confidence in the advertising industry as a whole. With dishonest behavior rampant on the Internet, the ASRC’s work is even more vital in that environment.
- As the digital ecosystem expands, there will only be more and more work for the ARSC to perform there. And while new technologies present new issues, the same principles that the ARSC applies to legacy media (demanding truth in advertising, for instance, and prohibiting deceptive practices) are capable of being translated to digital formats.
How the Industry Sees It
I sat down with Lee Peeler, President and CEO of the ASRC, to talk about his organization’s work.
How much of your time today is devoted to issues surrounding online or mobile advertising, as opposed to advertising on traditional media such as print, television, and radio?
This is a great question. I can remember when there was actually a distinction between enforcement work in the digital and more traditional forms of advertising. In today’s world that distinction is increasingly irrelevant. So, as you know, we have an interest-based advertising unit that focuses exclusively on enforcing the privacy and consumer choice principles established by the Digital Advertising Alliance for both online and mobile marketing; for the folks in that unit – led by privacy expert Genie Barton (@PrivacyGenie for the Twitter aficionados) – online and mobile are a full-time job. The attorneys who examine advertising claims for truth and accuracy – attorney staff at the National Advertising Division (NAD), Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) and Electronic Retailing Association (ERSP) – look at advertising claims wherever they appear. Today, that means they are regularly looking at the same claims made in digital advertising and traditional media.
What is the biggest issue that the ASRC is confronting right now in connection with social media?
We’re certainly watching claims that are based on consumer reviews and looking at mobile marketing to assure that any material information is readily apparent to consumers, despite the small screen. I think it is useful to remember that not every advertising claim will be a good fit for every medium. Communicating the material terms of a complex service plan may work well on a website, where consumers can take their time to read the information and tougher to communicate the same material information via mobile. But ironically – and discouragingly to me – the issue of clear and conspicuous disclosures in traditional media like television continues to occupy a disproportionate amount of our time. I am bewildered by the continued reliance of advertisers and their agencies on the presence of inadequate video disclaimers as attempted qualifications of their ad claims despite decades of NAD, ERSP and FTC guidance that such disclaimers are inadequate. Mis-reliance on these video disclosures seems to persist even in the face of the FTC recent enforcement efforts to drive home the fact that they are inadequate.
Do you feel that brands on social media platforms understand and appropriately apply the FTC rules regarding disclaimers, an issue that has come up in recent years?
I believe most advertisers want to forge strong, respectful relationships with their consumers and that they recognize the need to provide consumers with good information. Our role in supporting the industry includes helping provide solid guidance on the execution. That said, there are a host of new issues in the social media space – both in the content and data collection sides – that can slip by and that is when self-regulation comes into play.
What are the ASRC’s priorities for the balance of 2016?
On the housekeeping side, we are working closely with the IT department at the Council of Better Business Bureaus – our administrative parent – to upgrade the Online Archive, our decisions database. Nearly 20 years ago when she was the brand new director of NAD, Andrea Levine scoured every cupboard, cabinet and desk drawer to find all decisions the NAD published since 1974. To encourage participation in the process and bring in much needed revenue, she had the decisions copied to discs, which the NAD then sold. That was the foundation of the Archive, which now includes more than 6,000 decisions – an indispensable, but imperfect, tool for practitioners. The CBBB has devoted some great resources to upgrading the Archive search function. We will be rolling out improvements through 2018. Because our decisions are published, not only do the individual parties to a specific inquiry benefit from NAD’s guidance, but the industry in general benefits, as well. [And, yes, this probably is “native advertising”.]We’ve also implemented certain recommendations of the American Bar Association Working Group. The Working Group did a top-to-bottom review of the NAD process last year – the kind of stakeholder feedback we could never afford to pay for – and a key issue was the development of a case scheduling process. That is working really well and we expect it will help reduce the number of days to decision. On the privacy side, we just released our first mobile cases and you can expect to see more. For children’s advertising there is a suite of new issues raised by the rush of kid’s content to streaming video where we hope to be able to provide more guidance to marketers and the media.
You spent 33 years at the Federal Trade Commission. What is the ASRC’s relationship with the FTC like, and how closely do you think a self-regulatory body should work with government regulators?
I am a strong believer in the FTC’s position that self-regulation and government regulation are separate and distinct undertakings. At the same time, it is clear that even without a formal relationship, government can follow policies that encourage responsible self-regulation and that, done correctly, self-regulation can complement government regulation and help conserve limited government enforcement resources. Over a period of almost 50 years, the Federal Trade Commission has done an outstanding job of encouraging responsible self-regulation in a way that enhances and does not compromise the FTC’s responsibility to protect consumers. You saw that when FTC Chairwoman Ramirez issued a statement commending the Council for Responsible Nutrition’s support of impartial and transparent self-regulatory oversight of dietary supplement advertising.
What’s the most interesting object in your office?
Far and away, the most interesting thing in my office is the talented staff I get to work with. They are bright, dedicated, hardworking, supportive, sometimes hilariously funny and unfailingly dedicated to advancing the public’s interest in truthful advertising and fair information handling. It is a blast to work with them.