Exclusive: ASA chief on how to regulate adland in a world of greenwashing and crypto
The UK’s advertising body made headlines last month when it banned a series of HSBC green ads for being misleading about their environmental credentials, and said any future campaigns must disclose the bank’s contribution to the climate crisis.
Guy Parker, head of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), told City A.M. that this decision was “groundbreaking” and set a precedent for what would happen when firms are found to be greenwashing.
When challenged on whether the ASA had authority to make judgments over green claims, Parker said the remedy from a brand’s perspective was pretty simple: just balance your ad campaign to be honest about impact.
“We are not saying you can’t run an ad campaign that focuses on greener investments. We’re just saying that when you run that campaign, make sure that the adverts have got something in there that acknowledges a lot of them are not as green,” he said.
Parker acknowledged that if society wants businesses to transition to more sustainable initiatives, they must be rewarded by being able to brag about it.
But he said the HSBC decision has “drawn a line in the sand” for what will fall within the greenwashing camp and what won’t.
Another contentious area that the watchdog has doubled down on is the promotion of cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFT).
Pizza firm Papa John’s was forced to cut its free Bitcoin promotion last year, whilst former footballer Michael Owen was told to delete a promotion for a controversial NFT scheme that he shared on his Twitter feed in May.
Parker said it was important to strike a balance on allowing people to invest their money how they want, while enabling them to have information about the risks.
He said the regulator’s role was all about plugging the “knowledge gap” for average punters viewing adverts about investing in crypto and NFTs.
A brave new ad world
The ASA was originally set up by the advertising industry in 1962 to deal with complaints about advertising on traditional ads spaces like billboards.
But today, the advertising landscape is completely unrecognisable.
It’s dominated by what Parker calls the “biggest beasts in the playground” like Amazon and TikTok, and the regulator is forced, for example, to grapple with Instagram influencers failing to label their posts as paid-for adverts.
Parker said that it was important to work with these tech titans to build a safe and transparent advertising landscape.
The ASA is currently piloting online advertising guidelines, known as the Intermediary and Platform Principles, in a bid to bring more accountability and transparency to online advertising, and make sure online platforms properly police adverts on their respective sites.
But despite his eagerness to work with big tech firms and social media giants, Parker explained that he won’t be afraid to name and shame online platforms if they don’t meet the standards set out in the new pilot scheme.
“Although we are working with the platforms, it doesn’t mean that we don’t hold them to account if they’re not doing enough,” he said, promising that the ASA would be publishing an interim report next month about the progress of the trial.
In this way, the pilot programme has similar intentions to the EU’s new Digital Services Act and the UK’s impending Online Safety Bill, which both attempt to bring US tech firms into the folds of regulation.
The ASA did admit that the increased workload across online has undoubtedly meant a greater pressure on its funding model – a voluntary levy of 0.1 per cent paid by advertisers to the regulator.
The levy means where an ad costs £1,000 to appear on a bus shelter ad, £1 of that would be collected and go towards funding the ASA.
It said its income is now increasingly supplemented by direct contributions from digital-first advertisers and platforms.
With the scope of ASA’s work seeming to balloon every year, the question for the regulator now is whether it will be able to keep up with its own ambition.