The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the UK’s advertising regulator, is taking steps to combat ads making misleading claims about the COVID-19 virus.

In March 2020, the ASA issued three rulings:

  1. Shopping 4 Home Ltd offered masks for sale on Amazon which were marketed as ‘Coronavirus Anti Corona Virus Vented Face Mask 3M Disposable Respirator, FFP3, Valve, 8835 (1).’ The ASA considered that the reference to ‘coronavirus’ in the listing was likely to exploit people’s fears regarding the coronavirus outbreak, particularly in a context where Public Health England, the relevant health authority, had not recommended face masks as a means of the public protecting themselves from coronavirus. It was therefore misleading, irresponsible and likely to cause fear without justifiable reason.
  2. Novads OU also offered masks for sale. Its ads included various claims, including “now there’s a new breakthrough nano tech face mask that delivers an extraordinary level of protection … it’s called Oxybreath Pro” and was accompanied by text emphasising the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, shortages of face masks, and “a growing sense of panic.” The ASA considered that the ads used alarmist language and were misleading, irresponsible and likely to cause fear without justifiable reason.
  3. Vic Smith, a bedding company, published an ad which included a cartoon image of an upright mattress with a Union Jack flag on the front, which was wearing a green surgical mask. The accompanying text stated, “BRITISH BUILD [sic] BEDS PROUDLY MADE IN THE UK. NO NASTY IMPORTS.” The ASA considered that the phrase “NO NASTY IMPORTS,” in combination with the image of the surgical mask, was likely to be taken as a reference to the coronavirus outbreak, and was likely to be read as a negative reference to immigration or race, and in particular as associating immigrants with disease. The adjudication was upheld on the ground that the ad was likely to cause serious and widespread offence.

It is worth noting that the first two of these investigations were initiated by the ASA acting proactively, rather than in response to a third party complaint – something which it has the power to do when rapid action is needed.

The ASA has issued a statement on its regulatory approach to COVID-19. In it, the regulator recognises that in this time of national crisis it must act sensitively and with due regard to the circumstances faced by businesses and members of the public. In practice, this means applying a lighter regulatory touch and minimising regulatory interventions for minor infractions which are related to the COVID-19 pandemic (for example, unexpected shortages of stock).

The statement emphasises, however, that the ASA will take an uncompromising stance on companies or individuals seeking to use advertising to exploit the circumstances for their own gain. To facilitate this, the ASA has launched a bespoke online reporting form for ads that make misleading, harmful or irresponsible claims on the subject of the COVID-19 disease.