Price claims still generate the most consumer complaints

Ad Standards' annual report shows a slight drop in the number of ads consumers found fault with in 2019.

Advertisers being unclear about terms related to discounts and offers continues to be the greatest source of consumer consternation with ads, according to Ad Standards’ report on disputes and complaints received in 2019.

Ad Standards is the industry’s self-regulatory body, tasked with enforcing the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards.

In 2019, Ad Standards received 1,858 complaints about 1,142 ads. That’s a drop from the 2,005 complaints it received in 2018, though the decline is being attributed to a new practice that limits the number of complaints falling under the same violation of the Code to ten per ad.

Of the complaints received, 949 complaints about 700 ads were accepted by Ad Standards, compared to 1,252 complaints about 747 ads in 2018. The rest were not accepted because they were either exempted from the application of the Code (such as U.S. ads or political ads) or fell outside of Ad Standards’ jurisdiction (such as those advertising unauthorized natural health products, complaints that are instead passed onto Health Canada).

Of those complaints, Ad Standards found that 351 complaints about 267 ads raised one or more potential issues under the Code, compared to the 481 complaints about 167 ads in 2018. The biggest difference was the fact that complaints for 217 of the 267 ads were resolved administratively through a process where Ad Standards works with the advertiser to address the complaint. That’s compared to 104 of 167 ads that were resolved this way in 2018.

That left 50 ads to be referred to adjudication by the council, a process that found 37 ads violated the Code.

As in other years, the most complaints were about ads Canadians believed violated Clause 1 and 3 of the Code, which cover accuracy and price claims, respectively. Typically, these claims are related to promotional, rebate and reward program offers that omit a restriction to qualify or additional fees, additional components for a product that are sold separately and terms that were not applicable to consumers in all provinces where the ad appeared. Many of the price claims are related to using U.S. currency in ads targeting Canadian consumers, as well as deceptive price claims, discounts, inflated regular prices and non-disclosure of regular prices.

Of the 854 ads that received complaints under Clause 1 and 3, 33 were found to have contravened the Code, most of which were due to omitting or not clearly communicating relevant details about offers and price claims.

Ad Standards also received complaints about 488 ads under Clause 14, which covers “unacceptable portrayals and depictions,” including things that condone or enforce discrimination, violence and public decency, or otherwise disparages a group of people. However, Ad Standards said that most of the complaints, as in past years, were subjective matters of personal taste – only four ads were seen to have contravened the Code. Two were for anti-choice groups that were deemed disparaging to women; one was for a Kia ad that depicted the illegal act of driving a car through a river; and one was for an unnamed web hosting company that depicted authority figures being overly aggressive toward users of competing services.

Ad Standards found one ad contravened Clause 10 of the Code, covering depictions of unsafe behaviours, for an ad showing a one-wheeled “hoverboard”-style mobility device weaving between traffic on a busy road.

For the third straight year, Ad Standards received the most complaints about non-commercial campaigns, with 537 (followed by 211 for retailers, 168 for leisure services and 110 for food). Of these ads, 356 were for advocacy advertising, which – much like complaints that fall under Clause 14 – can frequently irk peoples’ personal tastes and opinions without contravening the Code. As 2019 was an election year, a further 135 complaints were related to election and political advertising, which do not fall under Ad Standards’ jurisdiction.

As in past years, TV ads resulted in the highest number of complaints (604) of any medium, followed by out-of-home (467) and digital advertising (408); of the complaints pertaining to digital ads, 135 were related to ones on social media. Ad Standards also received six complaints relating to influencers in 2019 (five for unclear disclosures and one including an out-of-date testimonial), all of which were resolved administratively.