Advertising in the UK is independently regulated by The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). They ensure any ads run across media stick to the guidelines as outlined in a series of codes issued by The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP).
With the changing complexion of advertising in the UK, such as the continued shift towards digital marketing and the creation of new channels through which to run ads, these codes evolve over time.
This month The ASA issued new guidance for affiliate marketers in which the types of publisher models that fall within its scope were explicitly spelled out with specific guidance about how commercial relationships should be disclosed to their user bases.
In its updated advice The ASA stated "some forms of affiliate marketing will be obviously identifiable because of the nature of the medium, for example banner ads, branded emails, ‘cashback’ websites or websites solely dedicated to the product or service promoted.
"However, in social media, vlogs, blogs, news sites and voucher sites... it may not be clear in all cases".
It therefore recommends that where that relationship may not be obviously identifiable affiliates use disclosure mechanics to signal to consumers they may end up being paid should they go on to make a purchase.
The advice talks about labelling content with the word 'Ad' or making it evident and clearly visible on the affiliate website that commercial relationships between the publisher and the retailer exist.
Types of affiliates
It clarifies how evident these disclaimers should be by stating that "a disclaimer of this nature at the bottom of such a post is unlikely to be sufficient". In other words affiliates must use their best endeavours to act within the spirit of disclosure rather than see it is a box ticking exercise and burying disclosure messaging.
Where the media and mechanic can be different, such as in vlogging (which is not a major part of the affiliate channel) and social media channels, there is also guidance about how to add relevant disclaimers. In both instances the message is reiterated that commercial content must be clearly identifiable as such, the notation of 'Ad' prefacing the content or being clearly allied with the advert.
Voucher code rules
Probably the most interesting aspect of the new ASA guidance is reserved for voucher code platforms.
The ASA states "if not otherwise clear from the overall context and presentation, promotional offers on ‘voucher’, ‘free goods’, and ‘deals’ websites which include affiliate links should be obviously identifiable as advertising.
"Where all of the promotional offers presented include an affiliate link, the website as a whole should make clear the nature of the content and ensure that it does not misleadingly imply that the website is ‘independent’ or has merely collated the deals for no financial incentive."
It repeats the guidance that having separate pages within the site that explain the nature of the commercial relationship - something some voucher platforms have done in the past - shouldn't be relied on.
So what should affiliates do? We need to consider that both affiliates AND advertisers are liable should a complaint be upheld against an affiliate and therefore the stakes are raised.
In one respect this additional clarity is welcome as it reduces ambiguity for affiliates. However industry now needs to decide whether a cross-network initiative is needed in order to both raise awareness and produce practical and easily applicable solutions.
That the guidance also states that affiliate marketers are free to highlight commercial content "however they wish provided that it is obvious", may lead to creative, self-regulatory methods whereby affiliates produce their own non-obtrusive but effective disclaimers.
For The ASA guidance in full, click here.