1 What are the ASA and CAP?
The United Kingdom advertising industry is governed by Advertising Codes of Practice. The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) own and write the Advertising Codes. These are administered by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which is the UK’s independent body that endorses and administers the Code to ensure that advertisements are legal, decent, honest and truthful.
The ASA investigates and adjudicates on complaints about broadcast and non-broadcast advertisements, as well as monitoring and taking action against misleading, harmful or offensive advertisements, sales promotions, and direct marketing. It also carries out research on many subjects related to advertising regulation.
The ASA’s remit extends to advertising across all media, including TV, internet (see below), sales promotions, and direct marketing including:
- print and press advertisements
- television commercials
- radio advertisements
- Internet advertisements: banners, pop-ups, sponsored search but not company websites. However, from 1 March 2011 the ASA’s remit will be extended to include 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
- email and text messages
- direct mail
- competitions, special offers
- sales promotions
- cinema commercials
The ASA has a number of sanctions it can apply. If an advertisement breaks the Code, the marketer responsible is told to amend or withdraw it, which most willingly do. The principle sanction is adverse publicity from the adjudications published each Wednesday; this is damaging to the advertiser and serves to warn the public.
If an advertiser refuses to comply with the ASA, further sanctions are possible, however, this is normally reserved for advertisers who fail to comply with the ASA’s adjudication. Both CAP and BCAP provide advice to advertisers and work with the broadcast pre-clearance bodies to ensure compliance with the rules and ASA adjudications.
2 The Advertising Codes
The Advertising Codes, whilst mandatory for all, are self-regulatory and lay down rules for advertisers and media owners to follow. These include general rules that state that advertising must be responsible and must not mislead or offend. There are specific rules that cover advertising to specific sectors; these are, but not limited to, children and advertisements for alcohol, gambling, motoring, health, and financial products.
The sections of the Codes which are of particular importance to SAPH members are:
12.1 Objective claims must be backed by evidence, if relevant consisting of trials conducted on people. If relevant, the rules in this section apply to claims for products for animals. Substantiation will be assessed on the basis of the available scientific knowledge.
Medicinal or medical claims and indications may be made for a medicinal product that is licensed by the MHRA or EMEA, or for a CE-marked medical device. A medicinal claim is a claim that a product or its constituent(s) can be used with a view to making a medical diagnosis or can treat or prevent disease, including an injury, ailment or adverse condition, whether of body or mind, in human beings.
Secondary medicinal claims made for cosmetic products as defined in the appropriate European legislation must be backed by evidence. These are limited to any preventative action of the product and may not include claims to treat disease.
12.2 Marketers must not discourage essential treatment for conditions for which medical supervision should be sought. For example, they must not offer specific advice on, diagnosis of or treatment for such conditions unless that advice, diagnosis or treatment is conducted under the supervision of a suitably qualified health professional. Accurate and responsible general information about such conditions may, however, be offered.
Health professionals will be deemed suitably qualified only if they can provide suitable credentials; for example, evidence of: relevant professional expertise or qualifications; systems for regular review of members’ skills and competencies and suitable professional indemnity insurance covering all services provided; accreditation by a professional or regulatory body that has systems for dealing with complaints and taking disciplinary action and has registration based on minimum standards for training and qualifications.
12.3 Marketers offering individual treatments, especially those that are physically invasive, may be asked by the media and the ASA to provide full details together with information about those who supervise and administer them. Practitioners must have relevant and recognised qualifications. Marketers should encourage consumers to take independent medical advice before committing themselves to significant treatments, including those that are physically invasive.
12.4 Marketers must not confuse consumers by using unfamiliar scientific words for common conditions.
12.5 Marketers inviting consumers to diagnose their minor ailments must not make claims that might lead to a mistaken diagnosis.
12.6 Marketers should not falsely claim that a product is able to cure illness, dysfunction or malformations.
12.7 References to the relief of symptoms or the superficial signs of ageing are acceptable if they can be substantiated. Unqualified claims such as ‘cure’ and ‘rejuvenation’ are not generally acceptable, especially for cosmetic products.
12.8 Marketers must hold proof before claiming or implying that a minor addiction or a bad habit can be treated without effort from those suffering.
12.9 Marketers must not encourage consumers to use a product to excess and must hold proof before suggesting their product or therapy is guaranteed to work, absolutely safe or without side effects.
12.10 Marketing communications must not suggest that any product is safe or effective merely because it is ‘natural’ or that it is generally safer because it omits an ingredient in common use.
3 What the Codes mean and the conditions which may not be advertised
The Advertising Codes apply to all advertisers, and SAPH, in common with other similar professional bodies, requires its members to adhere to the Codes. CAP takes the view that homoeopathic practitioners should not claim to be able to treat serious or prolonged conditions and that marketers of homoeopathy are advised to encourage consumers to take independent medical advice. (A number of years ago CAP produced a list of those conditions which is set out in this document: NB This list is not exhaustive. Please consult CAP’s Copy Advice Team if you have any queries about other conditions.)
Marketers must not discourage essential treatment for conditions for which medical supervision should be sought. CAP states, for example, they must not offer specific advice on, diagnosis of or treatment for such conditions unless that advice, diagnosis or treatment is conducted under the supervision of a suitably qualified health professional. Accurate and responsible general information about such conditions may, however, be offered.
The list of conditions which may not be advertised and for which ‘suitably qualified medical advice’ should be sought is as follows:
Age-related macular degeneration: AMD
Arthritis [cf arthritic pain (M)]
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder:
Blood pressure, High
Circulation, Poor [cf circulatory problems]
Chronic obstructive airway disease:
Depression [cf feeling down or feeling<
Drug addiction (substance abuse)
Ear disorders, Serious
Erection problems or erectile dysfunction
[cf temporary erection problems,
temporary erectile dysfunction]
Eye Disorders, Serious
Gall bladder disorder
Herpes zoster (shingles)
Human immunodeficiency virus: HIV
Impotence [cf temporary erection
problems, temporary erectile dysfunction]
Infertility [cf sexual counselling]
Jaw joint dysfunction
Multiple sclerosis: MS
Memory problems or memory lapses
Menstruation, Regulation of
Migraine [cf migraine headaches]
Obesity [cf diet, trouble sticking to]
Obsessive compulsive disorder: OCD (P)
Psoriasis [cf skin problems]
Polycystic ovary syndrome
Sexually transmitted diseases
Skin disorders, Serious
Suicidal thoughts (P)
Thrush, Oral [cf thrush, vaginal]
What can be advertised?
The fact that there is a prohibition on referring to the conditions which ‘suitably qualified’ healthcare professionals can treat does not mean that advertising of other conditions not listed is necessarily acceptable to CAP and the ASA. This is because any claim has to be backed up by evidence of trials, conducted on people where appropriate. Substantiation is assessed by the ASA on the basis of current scientific knowledge.