Any marketing communications produced by your business are subject to regulation under the CAP Code. According to the Code, your advertising must not be misleading, harmful or offensive - and these obligations apply equally online. Kate Horstead finds out how to avoid falling foul of the rules
What's the CAP Code?
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 (the so-called CAP code).
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 your broader legal obligations - such as the Unfair Trading Regulations, the 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 spaces 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.
What the CAP Code says
If you are honest about your product or service, and don’t make unsubstantiated claims, you are unlikely to be in breach of the Code. You can download the full code from the ASA website.
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. "For example, 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."
What happens if you breach the CAP code?
"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."
If you want your business to succeed, it’s definitely in your best interests to work within the bounds of the CAP Code in your marketing communications. If you don’t, the ASA can ask its partners (such as the media and online search engines) to refuse you advertising space and remove your paid-for adverts.
They can also refer you to other bodies such as Trading Standards or Ofcom for further investigation.
Most persuasively, they will openly ‘name and shame’ any advertisers that haven’t complied with the rules. This information will appear high in search results for your business - leading to bad publicity that could sink your firm.