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28 May 2020

COVID-19: Advertising Responsibly

The ASA continues its drive to ensure responsible advertising during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the outset of the pandemic the ASA took swift action to highlight to advertisers it would act quickly and robustly against ads that exploited people’s health related anxieties and the difficult financial or employment circumstances many people were facing. The ASA also published guidance on the main areas in which it believed ads may be deemed problematic. Despite this there have been a number of ads which have fallen foul of the CAP Code.

The latest series of problematic ads related to a vitamin C drink containing claims such as “Vitamin-C has been proven to boost immunity” which, taken in the midst of the pandemic, could be taken to imply that the drink could help to prevent, treat or cure COVID-19. Making such claims is not permitted unless the products in question are authorised on the EU Register of nutrition and health claims, which this product was not. It is also prohibited to make claims that food and supplements can prevent, treat or cure human disease. The ASA therefore held that the ads must not appear again.

Below we have outlined the ASA guidance and rulings since the beginning of the pandemic to highlight the main areas of concern which may have the potential to grossly undermine the UK’s response to the pandemic.

Key Areas of concern and ASA Rulings

1. Medicines and medical devices:

The key issue in this space is that ‘medical or medicinal claims’ can only be made for products where they are licenced medicines or appropriately marked medical devices.

ASA Rulings:

  • The ASA banned an ad which promoted an “Anti-Corona Virus Face Mask”.
  • The ASA banned a series of ads which promoted a “New Nano Tech Face Mask” and implied that the mask would offer protection against being infected by COVID-19.

2. Alternative and complementary therapies

The ASA made clear that it was likely to consider COVID-19 a condition for which medical supervision should be sought.

ASA Rulings:

  • The ASA banned advertising claims on websites and in social media made by three clinics offering IV drip treatments which made medicinal claims that implied they could prevent or treat COVID-19.

3. Food or food supplements

As seen above, the ASA made clear that ads that make health related claims and/or suggest a product may help protect consumers from infection of COIVD-19 by, for example, supporting their immune system, were likely to be viewed as problematic.

4. Fear, distress and social responsibility

The ASA highlighted that ads should not exploit an audience’s fear in order to mislead them into buying a product.

ASA Rulings:

  • The ASA banned an ad which stated “British Build, beds proudly made in the UK. No Nasty imports”. The ad also contained imagery whereby a cartoon mattress was wearing a green surgical mask. In the ASA’s view the ad was likely to cause serious or widespread offence as in combination with the image the reference to “nasty imports” was likely to be read as a negative reference to immigration or race.

Moving Forward

Ads in any of the special interest areas above will likely receive additional scrutiny from both the public and regulators. Advertisers must exercise special caution and be mindful of how ads may be perceived by the public in the current heightened state of awareness, especially if those ads contain health-related claims.
For more information on any of the ASA Rulings set out above, please use the following link

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