Ad watchdog plans AI unit to hunt down the rogues

robotThe Advertising Standards Authority is ramping up its use of data science and artificial intelligence by building an in-house team to actively pursue rogue advertisers rather than wait for the consumer complaints to flood in.

The new strategy, revealed in the regulator’s annual report, follows its use of monitoring technology in the form of child ‘avatars’ – online profiles which simulate children’s browsing activity – to identify ads that children see online.

Initially used to target companies promoting junk food, the ASA has expanded the programme to target gambling operators.

The organisation says it has sought expertise from AI specialists at other regulators – including the Competition & Markets Authority, the Financial Conduct Authority, Google and AI start-ups and consultancies, in particular Faculty – to ensure it has the appropriate in-house data science skills to deliver the strategy.

The report states: “Our aim is to deliver a step change so we can respond to the scale of the challenge of regulating an ever-increasing number of website and social media ads. We want to be leaders in AI-driven advertising regulation and, with the help of an AI consultancy, we now have a clear data science plan that is our road map to realising this ambition.

“Using a three-phased approach over the next four years, we will build an internal data science capability that will utilise advanced machine-learning techniques to tackle fundamental regulatory issues and provide an even greater level of consumer protection.”

However, it warns that delivery of the new strategy depends on effective funding of the system and buy-in from key partners.

The ASA added: “Our funding is under pressure because of the movement of ad budgets into online media platforms that are either not levied or not levied easily. While the majority of large advertisers buy in to the ASA system, the increase in businesses, including SMEs, advertising online – particularly in ‘owned’ space – challenges that model. That’s one reason why part of our strategy focuses on engaging these groups.”

The annual report also exposed the growing problem of influencer advertising, with the category responsible for a quarter of all complaints about online ads last year; 4,401 complaints about 3,670 ads.

In total, there were 34,717 complaints across all media, compared to 33,727 in 2018. However, the ASA said that new categorising methods mean the figures for each medium cannot be compared with last year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, online media was responsible for just under half (48%) of all complaints last year – 16,767 – with second placed TV way down on 9,971 complaints, followed by outdoor (1,787), email (1,094) and packaging/POS (936).

Once again, direct mail only just makes the list, with 382 complaints out of an estimated 2 billion mailshots delivered to UK homes last year.

The watchdog also resolved 4,469 cases in which it initiated investigations. In total, 8,881 ads were amended or withdrawn last year as a result of ASA action.

ASA chief executive Guy Parker said: “Successful delivery of our strategy will involve us working more closely with the platforms, combining their substantial investments in ad review systems with our independence, regulatory expertise and ability to build positive relationships between key stakeholders.

“We’re planning our investment in data science, including machine learning, but we need the ad industry to deliver a successful outcome to its review of our funding model. We must be unstinting in our ambition to make ads responsible, wherever they appear.

“But we must also be smart in recognising and communicating that that will continue to involve different approaches: prioritising and partnership working for our regulation of website advertising claims; working more closely with online platforms and networks to tackle bad paid-for ads; and educating and enforcing to tackle the very different challenge of inadequately labelled or otherwise irresponsible influencer advertising.”

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