While the issue of Facebook advertising and marketing hit the news in late 2012, the Advertising Standards Board (the Board) has considered complaints about internet advertising since 2006.

Generally, complaints must be about Australian websites and complaints about R18+ or X18+ or pornographic material will be referred to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

Most internet advertising complaints received by the Bureau relate to traditional advertisements published or broadcast on a third party website. Since 2006 these have been considered as advertisements which must comply with the requirements of the AANA Code of Ethics.

Similarly, material that is located on a product specific website or “microsite” will be considered as advertising or marketing communications and is within the jurisdiction of the Board.

Advertiser corporate websites are a slightly different situation. Material located on an advertiser’s own website may be considered advertising or marketing communications if the material is designed to promote a particular product or to strongly promote the advertiser. Material such as this that is the subject of complaints will be assessed on a case by case basis by the Bureau and, if it is considered that the material complained about falls within the definition of advertising or marketing communications, the complaint will be referred to the Board.

In 2009 the definition of advertising was amended by the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) to refer to ‘advertising and marketing communications.’ The intent and effect of this change was to ensure that the broad range of advertising and marketing activities of advertisers met the requirements of the Code of Ethics.

The broadening of the definition in the Codes reflected the growing diversity of mediums for advertising and marketing communications and extended the reach of the Code of Ethics not only into online activities but also into a greater variety of traditional marketing areas that were previously not always captured, such as in-store activities and give-aways.

In terms of diversity of media, the Bureau now considers complaints about activities in media such as SMS Marketing, in-store marketing, advertiser owned Apps and elements of advertiser Facebook pages.

How does brand promotion fit in?

The definition of advertising and marketing communication clearly, and without ambiguity, applies to any material or activities that is within the control of an advertiser and that draws the attention of the public in a manner calculated to promote or oppose directly or indirectly a ‘product, service, organisation or line of conduct.’

Brand promotions will therefore be considered as advertising or marketing communications as they are calculated to promote the organisation.

Other material that would fall within this definition will be excluded however if it is ‘excluded advertising or marketing communications’ as defined in the AANA Code of Ethics. Material such as press releases, factual product information on websites, information on how to contact the advertiser etc will generally be considered not to be advertising or marketing communications.

How does this relate to Facebook pages?

The very broad definition of advertising or marketing communications is intended to and does apply to a wide range of material broadcast and published by advertisers.

In the same way that not all content on an advertiser’s corporate website is advertising or marketing communications, not all material on an advertiser’s Facebook page will necessarily be considered advertising or marketing communications.

Branded material on such pages such as games featuring the product, recipes using the product, suggestions to buy the product will all be considered as advertising or marketing communications and subject to the requirements of the Code of Ethics. Advertiser posts on a Facebook page which feature the product or encourage purchase or consumption of the product or service will also be considered advertising or marketing communications, as will user generated comments appearing on the page in relation to such posts.

Some material on a Facebook page will not be considered advertising or marketing communications and complaints about such material will be considered by other bodies. For example, complaints about news reports, articles, editorials, letters, cartoons, images and other published material may be covered by the Australian Press Council, and, where appropriate, complainants will be referred to that Council for consideration of their complaint. See further information about the Australian Press Council and its complaints process.

Each complaint will require consideration by the Bureau about whether the complained about component of the Facebook page amounts to advertising or marketing communications as defined in the Code of Ethics or is more properly considered by another agency.

The Board’s view on Facebook page content

A brief summary of the Bureau’s recent decisions on social media follows and the key issues and views of the Board are discussed below:

Advertising to children

  • Facebook rules limit access to Facebook for people 13 and over. It is not relevant for the Board to consider that some parents allow children younger than this to create Facebook profiles or to use other people’s Facebook accounts. This is the same approach as is applied in relation to classification ratings for television and cinema. The Board can only apply the provisions of the Code taking into account the classification and rating – and must make a decision based on the assumption that a parent or carer has followed the relevant classifications.
  • However the theme, visuals and language of a Facebook page can still be considered to be directed primarily to children as the relevant Codes can require consideration of the content of advertising material not necessarily where the material is broadcast or published.
  • Facebook page owners are able to limit access to their pages to people 18 and above. If an advertiser had used such controls then the Board will assess the complaint on the basis that the material is directed to people 18 and over.

Discrimination and vilification (Section 2.1)

  • The prohibition on discrimination and vilification is an absolute one and if the Board considered that advertising or marketing communications contain material that is discriminatory or vilifying then a breach of the Code will be found and the material must be removed.
  • Consider the ASB’s information on Discrimination and vilification for further information about what types of material the Board has considered amount to discrimination or vilification.

Exploitative and degrading (Section 2.2)

  • The prohibition on employing sexual appeal in a manner which is exploitative and degrading of any individual or group of people is also an absolute prohibition and a limited audience will not make an advertisement that breaches this provision otherwise acceptable.

Sex, sexuality and nudity issues (Section 2.4)

  • The Board must consider whether the advertising or marketing communication on a Facebook site treats sex, sexuality or nudity with sensitivity to the relevant audience. In this situation the Board must consider the target audience of Facebook users for that site and must also take into account that the advertiser can limit the audience by age.
  • Consider the ASB’s information on Gender  for further information about what types of material the Board has applied this provision.

Language (Section 2.5)

  • In determining whether language on a Facebook site is acceptable the Board can consider the circumstances (including the relevant audience and medium). Facebook sites often attract a very targeted audience and the views of people who visit the site would not necessarily be the views of a broader general audience. The Board can take into account that the audience for a Facebook page is not the general public.
  • However, strong or obscene language shall be avoided and language can still be considered to be inappropriate even where the audience is limited. The Board can also take into account that the advertiser has good controls in establishing its Facebook page, over the language able to used.
  • Consider the ASB’s information on Language for further information about how the Board has applied this provision.

Practical outcomes

A range of industry activities have led to the development of practice guides in how to manage social media. Responsible advertisers will consider both the Code of Ethics and practice notes for advertisers, as well as social media guidelines developed by the AANA, ABAC, the Communications Council and the ACCC in managing their advertising and marketing communications.