Parliament seeks to rein in ‘unfair’ online advertising


This article is part of our special report Food & Responsible Marketing.

Intrusive marketing practices brought on by the Internet have attracted the attention of the European Parliament, with lawmakers concerned about guaranteeing citizens' privacy, said Philippe Juvin MEP in an interview with EURACTIV.

Advertising "needs to be controlled to ensure that individual rights are respected," stressed Juvin, a French lawmaker from the centre-right European People's Party (EPP).

Juvin has been entrusted by the Parliament to draft a report on the impact of advertising on consumer behaviour.

In his report, the French lawmaker tries to avoid the pitfalls of an 'all-or-nothing' stance. While advertising certainly helps improve the circulation of goods in the EU internal market, he says "a good balance" needs to be found with respect to citizens' privacy.

The report, adopted by the Parliament's internal market and consumer protection committee in early November, will be voted on by MEPs in their December plenary.

The European Commission will then "propose new measures for unfair advertising on the Internet," Juvin said.

Dominic Lyle, director-general of the European Association of Communications Agencies (EACA), stressed that the Juvin report had "created a very interesting discussion" at a time when advertising was "going through a transition period with new techniques and new media involvement".

Responsible marketing

Juvin defines responsible marketing as that which is "fair and respects individual rights, including consumers' confidential information".

He said the Parliament wants to prohibit certain practices, including "robots" on Google's Gmail service that are able to scan personal emails for keywords to automatically generate targeted advertisements.

"It is absolutely impossible to accept that advertisers could read the content of your personal emails to make advertising," he said, without citing Google.

While personalised advertising is not in itself a problem, Juvin stresses that it must not lead to the development of intrusive advertising based on consumer tracking, "which breaches the principles of data protection and privacy".

The French lawmaker underlined that consumers should receive "clear information on how their personal data are being collected and used". He called on the European Commission to develop an EU website labelling system, modelled on the European Privacy Seal, to certify a site's standard of data protection.

Industry self-regulation

MEPs are particularly concerned about the development of "hidden" Internet advertising in the form of comments posted on social networks, forums and blogs. Such practices are currently not covered by EU rules, he said, calling for the existing Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (UCPD) to be "reworked" to address the issue. Alternatively, "a new directive" could also be envisaged, he suggested.

But Dominic Lyle of EACA believes there is no need to legislate as current laws already cover all kinds of commercial communications. "If you start to change directives every time new advertising techniques are introduced you will never stop," he said, arguing that the main problem is that the current UCPD is not yet being properly implemented in member states.

Lyle also argued that social media communities are actually very good at spotting brands that are trying to control their conversations and "are quick to get rid of or be negative about them".

Self-regulation practice codes are more flexible and can be updated more quickly than hard legislation, Lyle added, referring to the International Chamber of Commerce and the European Advertising Standards Alliance, which recently updated their codes to include digital marketing.

Behavioural ads

Other new forms of Internet advertising include so-called "behavioural" ads, which assess users' web-browsing behaviour, such as the pages they have visited or the searches they have made, to select which advertisements to display.

Consumers must be informed when they are subject to this kind of practice, Juvin said.

Behavioural advertising is so efficient, according to Juvin, that his report calls for clearly-worded warnings marked "behavioural advertisement" when such ads are displayed.

He said children are particularly vulnerable to this kind of advertising, in particular when they relate to toys or food. This is why the report proposes to strictly forbid behavioural advertising towards children altogether, Juvin added.

But Lyle argued that new advertising techniques are not hugely different – except perhaps technically or technologically – in what they bring to consumers. "The idea that you can take old-fashioned advertising techniques that are about controlling your message and implant those into a much more fluid social media environment doesn't work," he said.

"Until people learn how to manage social media correctly – and very few advertisers are currently doing that – its impact on consumers will be minimal," Lyle argued. 

"Either you use the social media well, through engaging with consumers to know what people expect and want from the brand – while it is of course up to consumers whether they want to engage with the brand – or you use it bad and fail," Lyle concluded.

To read the interview with Juvin in full, please click here

The 2005 Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (UCPD) provides the legal framework for combating misleading and aggressive advertising in the EU.

Under the directive, direct exhortation to children is banned from television adverts and the directive's black list extends the ban to all media, including the Internet.

The emergence of the Internet has opened up new ways to advertise. As a consequence, European governments have asked the industry to self-regulate or face new legislation.

Digital advertising for food and drinks represents some 1-2% of the total digital ad spending.

  • 13 Dec. 2010: Parliament plenary vote on report scheduled.

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