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ASA and CAP Annual Report 2020: Protecting young and vulnerable people

Posted 30/04/21

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) Annual Report 2020 published today, Thursday 29 April, highlights how we’re evolving the way we regulate to make sure young and vulnerable people are protected from potentially misleading, harmful or irresponsible ads. 

By harnessing innovative technology, using data science and working closely with partners, including other regulators and online platforms, we’re even better equipped to tackle irresponsible ads at pace and at scale.

In 2020 we:

• Resolved 36,342 complaints about 22,823 ads
• Had a record 36,491 ads withdrawn or amended, an increase of 346% on 2019 thanks to our use of tech-assisted online ad monitoring
• Delivered 722,376 pieces of advice and training to businesses

Other key figures in our Annual Report reveal that:

• Online cases made up 61% of all cases and nearly half of all complaints across media – 17,379 complaints about 14,512 cases
• TV complaints increased by 43% (perhaps reflecting increased viewership during lockdown) but only made up 1/5 of all cases – 14,211 complaints about 5,070 cases
• Complaints about influencer posts decreased by 8%, but still made up almost 1/4 of online cases
• The health and beauty sector had the most ads amended and withdrawn (in major part due to our proactive Botox and IV Drip projects)

In a year where, like everyone, we had to adapt our day-to-day operation, the range of work we carried out was extensive but remained focussed on protecting young and vulnerable people. While working closely with key enforcement partners, including with MHRA, CMA, National Trading Standards, Gambling Commission and online platforms, bolstered our regulation.

This led to us taking important consumer protection action, including:
• Fast tracking and prioritising tackling harmful or irresponsible Covid-19 ad related claims
• Issuing a joint Enforcement Notice with the MHRA instructing IV Drip Clinics not to imply that the drips could prevent or treat Covid-19
• Continuing our ongoing monitoring sweeps of children’s online media to identify and tackle age-restricted ads that were irresponsibly placed or served
• Launching our Scam Ad Alert system, in partnership with the major digital advertising and social media platforms, including Facebook and Google, to help tackle bogus ads that leave consumers out of pocket
• Issuing another Enforcement Notice with the MHRA to advertisers promoting licensed injectable prescription only medicines for weight loss on social media (which is prohibited by law). And following-up, using monitoring software both to identify and report similar ads for immediate removal and to identify 150 advertisers who were breaking the rules
• Clamping down on irresponsible Buy Now Pay Later ads and taking action against misleading Debt Advice companies
• And putting Influencers on notice after a proactive monitoring sweep of over 24,000 posts revealed the proportion of them sticking to the rules is far below what we would expect

And we set out the work we’ve started on other key projects, including:

• Launching our Climate Change and the Environment project which will ensure our rules and casework are up to date and effective and, working in partnership with others, taking proactive action against greenwashing claims
• Reviewing our past decisions on issues that touch on race and ethnicity and commissioning a major piece of public research on Harmful racial and ethnic stereotypes
• Consulting on new rules that will prohibit advertising for cosmetic interventions from being directed at those under the age of 18 as well as preparing to launch a call for evidence to examine the potential harms relating to body image and the potential impact of advertising on consumers’ mental health
• Launching our own ad campaign in Scotland and conducting a first wave of consumer research to benchmark public views on trust in advertising and awareness of the ASA

The report also highlights how we’re responding to calls for more accountability and transparency for online platforms. Social media platforms already play an important part in upholding the advertising rules online. Building on these foundations, we have engaged with government and the online advertising industry to explore strengthening our regulation online: holding platforms to greater account for the role they play in upholding the advertising rules, and being open and transparent about how they perform.

Taken in the round, our work in 2020 and beyond helps us to rebalance our regulation, reducing our reactive complaints casework and strengthening our proactive, tech-based ‘collective’ regulation.

ASA Chief Executive, Guy Parker says:

“Despite the huge challenges of the last 12 months, we doubled down on protecting children and people in vulnerable circumstances. We smashed our previous record of ads amended or withdrawn. We’re exploring holding online platforms to greater account for their role in upholding responsible ads online and we’re running important projects on the environment, racial and ethnic stereotyping and body image. In all of this, our increased use of technology is transforming the way we tackle harmful and misleading ads and helping us to better protect people.”

For further information please contact:

Media and Public Affairs Manager
Matt Wilson [email protected] / 020 7492 2122

Media and Public Affairs Officer
Freddie Alcock [email protected] / 020 7492 2123

Notes to Editors
1. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is the independent regulator of advertisements across all media in the UK. We do so in the public interest and with the co-operation of advertisers, agencies and media owners who are committed to observing the Advertising Codes. The ASA acts independently of both the Government and the advertising industry.

2. The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) is responsible for writing and maintaining The UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing covers advertisements placed in traditional and new media, sales promotions, direct marketing communications and marketing communications on marketers’ own websites.

3. More information about the ASA and CAP can be found at www.asa.org.uk



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