Canada: Changes To Ad Code, Complaint Procedures And More At Advertising Standards Canada

Last Updated: December 7 2012
Article by Marketing, Advertising & Regulatory Group

The folks at Advertising Standards Canada ("ASC") have been busy these days. Among other things, they have been making minor changes to the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards ("Code"), minor changes and to each of ASC's complaint procedures, responding to ad complaints galore and publishing the annual summary of their activities in the 2011- 2012 Annual Report.

Below, we catch you up on this activity, as well as highlighting some of the intriguing findings of the 2011 Consumer Research Study ASC commissioned, comparing certain Canadian and American views of advertising and looking in particular at Canadian attitudes on some basic advertising issues.

Changes to the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards: If you're an advertiser in Canada, you are likely familiar with the Code, which is the principal instrument of advertising self-regulation in Canada. In January 2012, ASC announced some minor amendments to the Code. It expanded the reference to "message" in Clause 1 (accuracy and clarity) to "message, advertising claim or representation" and confirmed that ads must not contain claims that are not only "inaccurate or deceptive" but also "otherwise misleading." ASC also tweaked Clause 6 (comparative advertising) by amending it to prohibit ads that "unfairly, discredit, disparage or attack one or more products, services, advertisements, companies or entities." In an effort to tighten up the language and provide further clarity, Clause 14 (unacceptable depictions and portrayals) was expanded to also prohibit ads that, "demean, denigrate or disparage one or more identifiable persons, group of persons, firms, organizations, industrial or commercial activities, professions, entities, products or services, or attempt to bring it or them into public contempt or ridicule."

Changes to ASC's Complaint Procedures: ASC also recently refreshed its complaints procedures. Most notably, the former Trade Dispute Procedure has been re-branded as the "Advertising Dispute Procedure", reflecting the fact that it is not limited to use by trade competitors, but can in fact be used by any legal entity either engaged in the use of advertising or that may be adversely affected by another's advertising. Similarly, the Special Interest Group Complaint Procedure was revised to clarify what sort of organizations are eligible under this cost-free complaint mechanism – i.e. organizations such as advocacy groups, common interest associations, or any collection of individuals or organizations, who may themselves be dissimilar, but who share a common point of view about a particular issue.

ASC's 2011 Ad Complaints Report Year in Review: The 2011 Ad Complaints Report released in March 2012, showed that ASC received a record number of consumer complaints in 2011. A total of 1,809, which represents a 51% increase from 2010! The 2011 Ad Complaints Report shows that consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about inaccurate or misleading advertising, and for the first time ever, were more numerous than complaints that ads were offensive or otherwise unacceptable. Retailers should beware – this sector received the highest number of complaints, at 252 – more than any other industry sector. The ASC Councils upheld 146 of the complaints they reviewed on 83 advertisements.

2011 ASC Consumer Research Study – Canadians v. Americans: Every so often, ASC will commission a study to take the pulse on Canadian and American perspectives on advertising and advertising standards. Some of the particularly interesting findings in ASC's 2011 Consumer Research Study ("Study") were that:

a. The data showed major cultural differences between Canada and the US, with Canadians less willing to accept advertising that steps out of bounds, particularly when it comes to truth and accuracy;

b. Americans tend to look at advertising differently from Canadians, seeing it more as entertainment and less impactful on societal values; and

c. Americans are less likely than Canadians to think the ads they see or hear are truthful. (Are we more gullible or are Canadian ads more truthful in fact?)

On the Canadian front – regarding political advertising:

a. Shocker – Most Canadians Don't Find Political Ads Very Believable: Apparently, few Canadians believe political ads meet expectations for truth and accuracy. Only 30% said the political advertising they see or hear is very or somewhat truthful. Contrast this with what they think of consumer advertising, which 72% of Canadians find very or somewhat truthful.

b. A Big Chunk of Canadians Don't Like Attack Ads: Almost half the Canadians surveyed (48%) said that, "political parties or candidates should never criticize their opponents in advertising and should only promote themselves." In other words, stick to your own candidacies and records. Apparently, Quebecers felt most strongly about this, with 60% agreeing, compared to the Canadian average of 48%.

We would have loved to see the American statistics on the political questions, but perhaps another time. The Study confirms that while we may pretty much look the same and pretty much talk the same, our differences appear to run deeper than beaver tails and maple syrup. The 49th parallel separates two distinct societies – something advertisers should bear in mind.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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