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March 29, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:09am

Reach in hot water with ASA after failing to use #ad on sponsored tweets

By Charlotte Tobitt

The UK’s advertising watchdog has found that several paid-for tweets posted by Reach’s regional titles were “likely” to be in breach of its rules.

The Advertising Standards Authority however decided not to open a formal investigation because Reach promised to put measures in place to provide clear labelling in future – despite making similar pledges after another complaint just over a year earlier.

A complaint was made to the ASA about five tweets posted by the Hull Live, Cornwall Live, Devon Live, Plymouth Live and My London accounts linking to stories giving readers the chance to win tickets to virtual craft event The Handmade Festival.

The complaint also concerned a separate Hull Live tweet linking to a paid-for story about Hull Culture & Leisure Ltd, which provides services for Hull City Council, and the work it has done during lockdown. All the tweets concerned remain live.

The UK code of non-broadcast advertising and direct and promotional marketing, as set out by the ASA, states marketing communications should be “obviously identifiable” as such, which the articles related to the tweets were.

[Read social media guidance for journalists: Any paid-for content must be clearly labelled]

Hull Live Hull Culture and Leisure tweet “likely” to be in breach of ASA rules

The ASA told the complainant the tweets were all “likely” to be in breach of the rules as they were not obviously recognisable as marketing communications.

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But it said it would not refer the matter to its ASA Council and open a formal investigation because of how seriously Reach took the complaint, including by pledging to improve its workflows in future.

Reach acknowledged the tweets should all have been labelled #ad and provided further guidance and training to the staff who posted the tweets.

It also added a step to its tweet scheduling process to give commercial writers a final opportunity to review posts, and said their content editors will become more involved in ensuring tweets are compliant.

The ASA previously looked at a complaint about Hull Live, the website of the Hull Daily Mail, posting a series of tweets linking to paid-for content without labelling the posts as ads.

The watchdog informally resolved that case in September 2019 because, it said, Reach “confirmed that in future, the posts will follow the labelling rules”.

The complainant told Press Gazette: “Although I am now told that Hull Live have taken this complaint ‘very seriously’, I find it absolutely astounding in their response to the ASA that such a giant advertiser is only now introducing scheduling and compliance steps in their advertising process to ensure correctness.

“Why wasn’t this in place at the start of their operation, or certainly after the first time the ASA had upheld a similar complaint against them?

“I’d suggest that although the ASA’s focus is on engagement and support, their goodwill has been abused by Hull Live in this instance. I hope that the ASA’s position is now understood and adhered to by Hull Live and its associates, and that the ASA would consider stronger enforcement action in the future.”

Another Reach daily title, the Liverpool Echo, was found in breach of the ASA’s standards in 2019.

An article about Black Friday deals failed to make clear that external links to products mentioned in the copy were part of an affiliate marketing deal, the ASA ruled.

[Read more: Has coronavirus killed content marketing?]

Other publishers have also been caught out: the ASA censured Buzzfeed UK in 2016 when it failed to label a sponsored editorial that had been paid for by fabric dye manufacturer Dylon headed: “14 Laundry Fails We’ve All experienced”.

And an advertorial for Michelin tyres in 2015 was deemed not obviously identifiable to readers as an advert, despite several references to sponsorship and the article being “in association with” the brand.

The Telegraph last year closed its award-winning branded content division Spark to focus instead on its long-term partnerships that tie in with its subscription-first strategy, which it is focusing on over advertising.

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