WFA News

There are no exceptions

Advertising self-regulation is not a pick and mix: it must cover all marketing. That includes social media. It is becoming urgent for marketers to decide how to make this work in practice, says Stephan Loerke.

A single case in Australia is proving to be a turning point in global discussions about self-regulation and brand responsibility in the age of social media.

A year ago, the Advertising Standards Bureau – the ad industry’s self-regulatory authority in Australia – investigated a complaint involving Diageo and Facebook. While the complaint was rejected, ASB ruled that Facebook is an advertising medium and as such that brand pages on Facebook and other social networks need to comply with marketing codes.

More than any other development, this ruling created a precedent for advertising self-regulation on social media – not just in Australia but right around the world.
Brand marketers and self-regulatory authorities had to confront hard questions about what their commitment to self-regulation in the age of social media means in practice: how do we deal with user posts on brands’ social media pages to ensure they are not misleading, offensive or in any other way breach the relevant marketing codes?

As the ripples of the case spread, some voices started to call for the ruling to be reversed.

The Australian chapter of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), representing the online advertising sector, argued that brands shouldn’t be required to apply the self-regulation codes to user comments on brand-controlled social media pages, effectively calling for a watered-down set of marketing standards for social media.

That would have been the wrong approach, with potentially far-reaching consequences for the future credibility of self-regulation. The Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA), with WFA’s active support, intervened forcefully to prevent the industry’s commitment to responsibility being watered down.

I believe that this case has fundamental lessons for us all and helps highlight the key challenges that we need to address.

First, social media is becoming a test case for the continued credibility of self-regulation. Consumers and policy makers won’t believe that we are serious about self-regulation unless we can demonstrate that the same standards we apply to traditional media also apply to evolving channels such as social media.
That basic principle is enshrined in the global marketing code of the International Chamber of Commerce, which clearly establishes that self-regulation applies to “all advertising and other marketing communications” – no exceptions.

Much work is already under way to deliver on this principle. Self regulatory bodies around the world, using the ICC code as a common baseline, are extending their remit to cover digital channels. Witness, too, the self-regulatory programme for Online Behavioural Advertising which just went live in Canada, following the US and Europe. And the global self-regulation commitments of major food and beverage alcohol producers explicitly apply to digital and social media. Yet more work clearly remains to be done.

Second, our commitment to self-regulation means taking responsibility for what’s posted on brand-owned social media pages, irrespective of the origin of the comments.

As the ICC code states: “Marketers should take appropriate steps to ensure that the commercial nature of the content of a social network site under the control or influence of a marketer is clearly indicated and that the rules and standards of acceptable commercial behavior in these networks are respected.”

The key test of whether self-regulation applies, in other words, is whether content is under the control or influence of a marketer. Brand-owned social media pages clearly meet that test.

Third, we need an informed and open debate about how we implement this commitment to cover social media in a way that is proportionate and realistic.
Clearly, having human moderators looking at every post on every brand page in every country in real-time would be both impractical and disproportionate. And I would argue that this is not what the spirit of our commitment requires.

Rather, we need to develop a consensus about the appropriate way to monitor and moderate user comments. How do we ensure responsibility without engaging, from our consumers perspective, in censorship? What is an acceptable and achievable timescale for moderation, and where needed removal, of comments? How can we best empower consumers to understand, agree and help uphold the “rules of engagement” on brands’ social media pages?

The discussion, in short, is not about whether we self-regulate social media; we have to. Instead, the discussion we now need is how we deliver that promise in a pragmatic and globally consistent way.

WFA is working closely with the ICC, the European Advertising Standards Alliance, the International Council on Advertising Standards and our other partners to build a global consensus on this issue.

In March 2014, WFA’s Global Marketer Week will take place in Australia – the country where this issue first came to global prominence. This will be an important moment to take stock of our progress and map a way forward.

Stephan Loerke is Managing Director of the World Federation of Advertisers