The internet is on the brink of overtaking television as the most complained-about advertising medium in the UK, with the ad regulator recording a surge of almost 300% in the number of consumers registering concerns over digital campaigns to more than 10,000 last year.
The Advertising Standards Authority – the body responsible for investigating consumer complaints into advertising content – said that overall there was a 25% year-on-year increase in the total number of complaints about all UK advertising in 2011 to a record 31,458.
However, the biggest area of growth in complaints was the internet, with a 282% surge in the number received about online advertising campaigns between 2010 and 2011, rising to 10,123. The number of internet ads consumers complained about also grew dramatically, by 300% year-on-year, to 9,295.
This quantum jump puts internet advertising a whisker behind the most complained about media, TV, which saw a 20% year-on-year decline in complaints last year to 11,245, about 5,556 commercials.
The main reason for the surge in internet advertising complaints was the extension of the ASA's remit to include investigating marketing messages on a media owner's own website. This includes offers made directly by an airline, retailer or telecoms company, as well as the marketing claims made by food brands and soft drink makers.
As a result the number of advertising and marketing campaigns that had to be ditched or changed to comply with the advertising code more than doubled to 4,591. And the total number of different ads complained about rose by 71% year-on-year to 22,397.
The ASA's figures also suggest a shift in terms of what most concerns consumers about marketing messages.
Earlier this year daily online deals company GroupOn was forced by the Office of Fair Trading to agree on cleaning up the way it markets to consumers, after the ASA received dozens of complaints about its offers.
This trend is reflected in figures showing that complaints about an advertisement being misleading, in what the ASA terms non-broadcast media – which includes the internet – more than doubled to 14,833. This compares to a drop of about 9% in the number of complaints about TV and radio ads being misleading.
The sectors that saw the biggest year-on-year increases in complaints included holidays and travel, where complaint numbers doubled; the retail industry, which saw a surge of 98%, making it the second most complained about sector; computers and telecoms, which rose 70%; and health and beauty which increased by 87%.
One area of concern for the ASA will be a more than doubling of complaints that were categorised as "harmful", with numbers in non-broadcast advertising rising to 984, and doubling in broadcast media to 2,154.
The ASA is funded by a small levy on the cost of media buying by agencies.
Total income for the ASA increased by 13% last year to £7.66m, largely due to the extension of the watchdog's remit to cover online advertising. The ASA spend came in £254,000 under budget, and overall it made a small pre-tax profit of £66,281.
Salary costs climbed by about £500,000 year-on-year to almost £4.9m.
The ASA spent £419,000 on advertising promoting its role and services to the public, although the true scale of the campaign was much larger, with media owners donating a lot of time and space on radio, TV as well as in press and outdoor.
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