UK web site slapped for using US advertising standards

In my work in digital law, the most common response to issues is “but that doesn’t affect me.” Many web professionals, quite understandably, don’t see why their work must comply with the laws of the countries where it will be accessed, not the country where it is made. At best, it is a simple misunderstanding, and at its worst, it can descend into temper tantrums about extraterritoriality.

Here’s a prime example of the dangers of thinking that a web site is about the place where it its owners are based, not the place where it is used.

Buzzfeed UK has been slapped down by the Advertising Standards Authority for running a sponsored advertorial which was not clearly labelled as such. The article in question was a vapid listicle about “14 Laundry Fails We’ve All Experienced,” sponsored by a company that makes laundry products, written in cringeworthy language out of a 1950s housewife magazine:

“It’s at times like these we are thankful that Dylon Colour Catcher is there to save us from ourselves.”

While it was marked as sponsored content, one of the factors the ASA used to rule against Buzzfeed concerned the most common design element of content aggregation sites: endless, if not infinite, web pages.

We further noted that the web page was very long and visitors to it would therefore not see the reference to Dylon Colour Catcher at the bottom of the page until they had already engaged with the content.

In other words, the article was only clarified as an advertorial by means of a dark pattern that users would likely never see.

Now what’s interesting is Buzzfeed’s excuse for failing to clearly mark the story as sponsored advertising content. They said that “as the ASA had not previously ruled on whether a label such as the one in the ad would be sufficient to alert consumers to the fact that it was a marketing communication, they relied on their US practices to guide how they labelled ads.”

e.g. when the UK’s online advertising rules wouldn’t allow them to do what they wanted to do, they used US rules as both leverage and an excuse.

Nice try, but it didn’t work.

camels
My favourite 1950s ad, which I had framed in my first flat. I love the schoolteacher, puffing clouds of smoke onto sickly children.

About the author
Heather Burns is a digital law specialist in Glasgow, Scotland. She researches, writes, publishes, consults, and speaks extensively on internet laws and policies which affect the crafts of web design and development. She has been designing and developing web sites since 1997 and has been a professional web site designer since 2007. She holds a postgraduate certification in internet law and policy from the University of Strathclyde. Learn about hiring Heather to write, speak, or consult.