New ASA rules: What travel businesses need to know

Advertising law specialist David Bond explains what the watchdog’s widened remit means for your online marketing

Most travel companies are familiar with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and its wide regulation of their broadcast and non-broadcast advertising. In contrast, the ASA’s online remit has traditionally been very limited – focusing on paid-for advertising and web-based sales promotions.

From March 1 2011 the ASA’s remit is being extended to cover all marketing communications on companies’ own websites and in other third party space under their control, such as their own pages on Facebook and Twitter.

The extended remit also covers a company’s online promotional videos. All such content must now adhere to the non-broadcast advertising rules set out in the CAP Code. In brief, such copy must be legal, decent and honest and travel companies must hold supporting evidence to substantiate any claims they make.

Areas that remain outside ASA’s remit, however, include editorial and journalistic content – such as pages detailing their corporate structure and press releases. User generated content that is published on corporate websites or social network sites is also outside the ASA’s remit provided that the company does not “adopt it” and use it in its own marketing communications – for example, a company using a customer’s comment as part of its own marketing material.

Corporate websites often contain material that would never be used in broadcast or printed media. Website copy should now be subject to the same internal compliance systems as are used for print and broadcast ads.

Particular areas of concern for travel companies include ensuring consumers are made aware of limited availability where it exists, including all non-optional taxes and duties in headline prices – not as an additional extra; and taking care when using objective superlatives like “cheapest” and ensuring that they hold suitable documentary evidence to substantiate such claims.

The ASA has indicated that its current sanctions (primarily requesting the withdrawal of infringing advertisements and naming and shaming offenders) will continue. However, additional sanctions will be made available for use against infringers including:

  • Removing paid-for search advertising – requesting search engines to remove ads that link to any page hosting a non-compliant marketing communication
  • The ASA publishing its own paid-for search advertisement to highlight an advertiser’s continued non-compliance with the CAP Code.

The implications for travel companies will be far-reaching. As a priority they should be aware of the extent of the ASA’s new remit. They will need to appreciate what represents editorial content and is therefore outside the scope of the CAP Code and what is a marketing communication and therefore within scope.

They should also conduct a thorough audit of their online marketing to assess whether it already complies with the CAP Code. Any non-compliant material must be removed or made compliant before 1 March 2011.

Going forward travel companies must vet all of their online marketing communications as rigorously as they vet their advertising in traditional print and broadcast media.

David Bond is partner and head of Advertising, Marketing & Sponsorship at Field Fisher Waterhouse LLP

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