In forumland and the blogosphere I see a lot of people complaining about this or that advert for CAM, but suspect that these complaints don't get much further. Complaining to the ASA is quick, easy and worthwhile; they have the power to have ads removed and can insist on advertisers having to seek out approval from the Committee of Advertising Practices before placing further ads. Here's a quick guide on complaining where it counts.
1. Are the ASA the right people to complain to?
The ASA have a specific remit to handle complaints about the following media:
- Magazine and newspaper advertisements
- Radio and TV commercials (not programmes or programme sponsorship)
- Television Shopping Channels
- Posters on legitimate poster sites (not flyposters)
- Leaflets and brochures
- Cinema commercials
- Direct mail (advertising sent through the post and addressed to you personally)
- Door drops and circulars (advertising posted through the letter box without your name on)
- Advertisements on the Internet, include banner ads and pop-up ads (not claims on companies’ own websites)
- Commercial e-mail and SMS text message ads
- Ads on CD ROMs, DVD and video, and faxes
But they don't cover:
- Claims on websites (http://www.tradingstandards.gov.uk/)
- TV and radio programme sponsorship (http://www.ofcom.org.uk/)
- Shop window displays (http://www.tradingstandards.gov.uk/)
- In-store advertising (http://www.tradingstandards.gov.uk/)
- Political advertising (http://www.ofcom.org.uk/).
2. What are the grounds of the complaint
There are three main columns of advertising regulation: misleadingness, harm and offense. Is the ad likely to materially mislead consumers? Is it likely to cause harm to consumers? Is it likely to cause widespread offense? As far as complaining about CAM advertising goes, you will primarily find grounds to complain due to misleadingness, where ads make unproven medical claims for a particular product, or harm, where ads, in promoting unproven products for serious conditions serve to dissuade consumers from seeking proper medical attention.
3. What is the procedure?
It couldn't be easier. The ASA website has an online form where you will be asked for information regarding the ad you wish to complain about - where and when you saw it, on what medium, and the specifics of your complaint. You don't need to go into too much detail here; it is enough to say that an advertiser is claiming homeopathy can treat asthma and that there is no evidence without having to point the ASA to a Cochrane review. The ASA take an evidence-based view of the world anyway - factual claims must be proved by the advertiser.
You will also be asked to provide, where possible, a copy of the advert itself. This isn't so important for radio or television, but is pretty vital for billboards, press and pamphlets. I find it easiest to just take a decent quality photo of the errant ad, which you can then upload to the ASA via the form.
It's also important to point out that although you give personal data to the ASA, they cannot pass this data on to the person being complained about without your consent. It's usually irrelevant, and tends only to come up where someone has failed to get something that was offered in an advert, or have entered into an agreement with an advertiser that didn't match the claims in the ad.
4. What Happens Next?
The ASA do not investigate every complaint that comes in. For each complaint lodged, they will identify whether a breach of the advertising standards codes may have taken place, and investigate only where they feel it appropriate. What they also will do is highlight aspects of the ad that they feel are in breach, whether or not that breach was part of the initial complaint. It is not unheard of for the ASA to not uphold a complaint from a member of the public, but go on to uphold elements of a complaint they themselves have introduced.
The ASA will keep you informed of the progress of the complaint. There are, in essence, three outcomes. The complaint will be either upheld or not upheld. Either way, the details of the complaint, the advertiser's response, and the ASA Council's decision, will be published on the ASA website. If the complaint is upheld, then there will be instructions to the advertiser on what they must do; invariably to withdraw the ad. Multiple offenders and non-respondents (not uncommon for CAM) will find themselves with additional instructions and the ASA may notify trade bodies of the issue with them. The third possibility is that the advertiser admits up front that their ad is misleading, withdraws it, and agrees to abide by the code in future. On this occasion the details of the investigation are not published in full on the website. This is what happened with a complaint I made against the Church of Scientology Stress hand-outs, who agreed that their medical claims were unfounded and that Dianetics was more of a belief system than a science as stated. So I just posted the letter from the ASA.
5. Post Adjudication
Once an adjudication is online, make use of it. They occasionally get picked up by the mainstream press (though often in a churnalism style) but ought to be bandied about a bit online. Complaints tend to be upheld because it is down to the advertiser to prove the claims they make and can't. That's something skeptics ought to be shouting out about!