Ad Standards as a Bellwether for Consumer Opinion

October 14th, 2020 | Jani Yates, President/CEO of Ad Standards

Thumbs down, thumbs upThrough our Consumer Complaint Procedure, we review complaints based on the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards. Each year, we publish a Complaints Report highlighting the themes and trends that arise from complaints submitted by the Canadian public about advertising. Consistently, we find that issues of accuracy and clarity, safety, and unacceptable depictions and portrayals are most concerning.

In the world of consumer complaints, this year began like any other. Just like in 2019, the Standards Council engaged in reviews of standard complaints on a regular basis…

Ad Complaints and Disputes Report 2019 cover

Consumer Complaints By The Numbers. By Complaint: 1,858 complaints received and reviewed by staff; 949 complaints accepted by staff for consideration under the Code; 351 complaints raised one or more potential issues under the Code. By Ad: 1,142 ads generated one or more onsumer complaints; 700 ads considered by staff under the Code; 267 ads raised one or more potential issues under the Code; 217 ads resolved without adjudication by Council; 50 ads referred to Council. Standards Council Adjudications: 50 ads referred to Council; 37 ads were found by Council to contravene the Code.
Complaints by Category (top ten): 1. Non-commercial - 537 complaints; 2. Retail - 211 complaints; Leisure Services - 168 complaints; 4. Food - 110 complaints, 5. Telecommunication - 81 complaints; 6. Automotive - 73 complaints; 7. Financial Services - 65 complaints; 8. Cannabis & Vaping - 62 complaints; 9. Health Products & Services - 54 complaints; 10. Real Estate Services - 36 complaints.

Then COVID happened.

For the first few weeks, Canadians were glued to daily news updates and began dealing with the widespread changes we all faced. Complaints to Ad Standards slowed to a trickle. Consumers had more pressing things to worry about, and the advertising industry was busy adapting to the shifting landscape. In response, Ad Standards quickly developed an advisory about making claims related to COVID-19, to remind advertisers about their claim substantiation obligations, both in the context of health products and performance claims about other products (in anticipation of what would follow).

The trickle of complaints then rose again to a steady flow. Initial complaints focused mostly on health claims. We fast-tracked COVID-related complaints in an effort to address those rare instances where the advertiser seemed to intentionally mislead – promising a treatment or prevention for COVID that could not, at that time, be substantiated. As people realized that COVID was not a short-term inconvenience, the complaints began to reflect growing concerns: why does the ad show social gatherings when that is not possible now; fear about finances and sensitivity to debt; a luxury product being advertised; travel destinations when we have to stay home; and the list goes on. Not all of these raise issues under the Code but are top-of-mind to the person making the complaint.

The International Council for Ad Self-Regulation (ICAS), of which Canada is part, completed a study on COVID complaints that reflects many common consumer concerns. While the study is not focused specifically on Canada, similar concerns are highlighted due to the global scale of the pandemic and the shared reactions we all experienced.

COVID Complaint Numbers

The good news regarding COVID related complaints is that the first step of our Consumer Complaint Procedure asks the advertiser to respond to the complaint. Most of the time with COVID complaints, when it’s a question of safety or public decency, the advertiser response was sufficient for the complainant and the complaint was closed. Understandably, in many cases consumers simply wanted to be heard and have it acknowledged that COVID was wreaking havoc on their lives. One complaint even expressed concern that the sheer number of COVID related ads was making them more anxious.

During the first six months of the pandemic in Canada (mid-March to mid-September), Ad Standards received 55 complaints from consumers relating to claims made in the context of COVID-19. Out of those, 46 met the criteria for acceptance and review under the Code. To date, less than ten have been found to contravene the Code.

To further support our industry, we recently issued a follow-up advisory advisory that offers suggestions for creating ads during COVID. There are creative solutions and our industry has an abundance of that!



About Jani Yates

Jani joined Ad Standards in 2016, as President and Chief Executive Officer. A leader in the Canadian advertising industry, Jani has 30+ years of industry experience, most recently at the Institute of Communication Agencies (ICA) as President for nine years. Before ICA, Jani held various senior roles at leading Canadian communication agencies. A volunteer in both the advertising and marketing industries, Jani is currently on the ACTRA Fraternal Benefits Society’s Board of Governors and serves as a member of the Humber Advisory Board. Jani is also a CMA accredited Chartered Marketer.