Is your online marketing legal, decent, honest and truthful?

Businesses have to ensure that their marketing is not misleading, harmful or offensive under the CAP code. But these obligations apply equally to any online marketing you produce, including any comments you make on social media. Kate Horstead finds out how to comply with marketing regulations

The way to stay within the law when marketing is clearly set out under the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing (one of the so-called CAP codes). This provides firms with best practice marketing guidelines that will help them maintain their reputation and comply with their legal obligations.

These guidelines should already be directing the way you behave in paid-for marketing such as direct mail and advertising. And if you stick to them you are unlikely to fall foul of the broader legal obligations of marketing - such as Unfair Trading Regulations, Distance Selling Regulations and the Data Protection Act.

The CAP code guidance also covers online marketing communications including those on your firm?s website, as well as marketing messages on other non-paid for space under your control such as social networking sites.

"Most small firms are already compliant, and if they follow the principles of the CAP code - to be legal, decent, honest and truthful - in their marketing, they have nothing to worry about," says Siân Croxon, partner at law firm DLA Piper.

Comply with online marketing best practice

"The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) works with businesses, rather than trying to catch them out, so most investigations are resolved through a conversation," says Ian Barber, director of communications for the Advertising Association. "But if you don?t comply with the code, you will lose customers? trust and encounter unexpected costs."

The ASA cannot levy fines against you for failing to comply with the code, but it can ask you to remove advertising and will publicise ads that have breached best practice. However, if you are honest about your product or service, and don?t make unsubstantiated claims, you are unlikely to be investigated.

Do not make exaggerated marketing claims

Firms that make incorrect or exaggerated claims - for example, wrongly claiming an item is reduced in price, or stating their product is the most environmentally-friendly on the market without any evidence - will be in breach of the CAP code and potentially the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations.

"In addition, if a competitor or customer complains to the ASA, or the ASA itself is unhappy with your marketing, you may have to spend time answering complaints and changing your website," warns Croxon. "If a leaflet needs changing, reprinting can be costly. You could also be investigated by a trading standards officer, which could lead to prosecution."

Ultimately, you can avoid breaching marketing rules if you and your staff are familiar with the CAP code, and keep up to date with other key legislation. "Make use of all the resources you can find online," concludes Croxon. "Then organise a training session for any staff that are involved in your marketing."

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