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How will the ASA's extended remit affect word of mouth?

by Molly Flatt on 03 September 2010

The ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) have been discussing extending the remit of the CAP code (UK Code of Non-Broadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing) for several months now, and this week the extent of the new digital coverage was announced.

Intended to prevent misleading marketing, ensure social responsibility and protect children, from next year the code will also apply online to:

  • Advertisers’ own marketing communications on their own websites; and
  • Marketing communications in other non-paid-for space under their control, such as social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

The new code goes on to clarify what this means for user generated content. UGC will fall under the code as ‘marketing communications’ if it qualifies for the following criteria:

  • Did the website owner originally solicit the submission of UGC from private individuals, then adopt and incorporate it within their own marketing communications?
  • Did a private individual provide the website owner, on an unsolicited basis, with material which the website owner subsequently adopted and incorporated within their own marketing communications?
  • Does the content of the material and the form in which it is re-used by the marketer itself constitute an advertisement or marketing communication by the marketer?

The extension has been welcomed by the likes of the IAB (who have produced a useful set of FAQs on the extension) and DMA, and rightly so. The code is only there to prevent unethical activity and keep the distinction between marketing and consumer content clear, which is a principle at the very heart of word of mouth. As soon as peer to peer opinion gets ‘owned’, dictated or spun by brands, it loses the independent, trusted power that makes WOM such an effective force.

Here at 1000heads we provide people with opportunities to experience brands, which are inherently conversational – but we never dictate what consumers should say or censor that content. And we believe WOM should remain where it had most clout – out there on individuals’ own on and offline spaces, not editorialised on a branded silo. You can see our full ethics commitment here.

But what do you think? Do you believe this is just the start of increased regulatory control over UGC and social spaces? Will we see marketers held accountable soon or will it prove too tricky to enforce?

As President of WOMMA UK, with a close partnership with Reed Smith’s advertising compliance legal team ReACTS, and a member of the DMA Social Media Council, I’ll be keeping a close eye on how things develop, so let us know if you have any questions, suggestions or thoughts.

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  • Dagmar

    Anything invasive devalues the persuasive, so we have nothing to worry about.

  • Carrie Grafham

    There seem to be a few grey areas: what about an RSS or Twitter feed that pulls UGC onto a company website? Will that be considered promotion and therefore covered by the code? How about hosting a conversation through a live social media feed on an advertisers’ website? I'm also wondering about re-tweets. Also, I think the name and shame site may lead to reluctance from brands to explore WOM, as search engine results will ensure their reputation is permanently damaged. What do others think?