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Advertisers are responsible for any material they hoover up from social networks to use in their promotions - and that user-submitted content must comply with UK advertising rules.

That's according to the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), which together with the Broadcasting Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP), is responsible for writing the rules that govern UK advertising. It has issued new guidance on advertisers' use of social media and advised businesses that they can fall foul of UK advertising rules as a result of content they have invited users to send.

"If you’re incorporating user generated content into your advertising, then make sure it’s responsible, and not misleading, harmful or offensive. You should also make sure it’s accurate, and you’ve got evidence to prove it is," CAP said in a new guide on 'rules of social engagement'. "This also means that if you’re positively inviting a conversation, for example through a promotional question ‘How have you used [our product / service] today?’, then we’d expect you to monitor the user generated responses (on pages under your control), because those responses become part of your advertising."

"This is so you can ensure that the content being added (that includes text, images and videos) by yourself, or your followers, is appropriate for the audience, and does not breach any of the advertising rules," it said.

Under the Code of Non-broadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing (CAP Code), marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so and marketers must hold "documentary evidence" to prove their claims made in those communications in order that the claims can be substantiated. The evidence must be sufficiently robust that consumers would likely regard it as objective and it must be "capable of objective substantiation."

The CAP Code also requires that advertisers to ensure that their marketing communications are "prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society". The Code prohibits ads that "contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence", although ads deemed to be "distasteful" may not necessarily be held in breach of the rules.

The CAP Code also requires that advertisers do not "cause fear or distress" in promotions "without justifiable reason". Even if that fear or distress can be justified, it must not be "excessive". The Code states that "marketers must not use a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention", whilst marketing communications that contain material "that is likely to condone or encourage violence or anti-social behaviour" are also prohibited.

In its guidance CAP also said that firms running promotions on social media have to "make it clear" that they are advertising. It said that the "average consumer" should be able to determine whether the information they are viewing is an advertisement, including where celebrity endorsements are involved.

"On Twitter we’ve suggested that advertisers use #spon or #ad to make it obvious," CAP said.

CAP also advised businesses to ensure social media ads are appropriately targeted in order to avoid breaking rules that require advertisers to ensure their promotions containing content that is likely to result in "physical, mental or moral harm" to children. The body also said that rules on running competitions, set out in the CAP Code, should also be adhered to when the competition is being administered via social media.

"We appreciate that online and social media offer great opportunities to reach an audience, and with the information they want to see and hear," CAP said. "While navigating that territory can be exciting, and offer dynamism to your marketing strategies, it’s still important that you approach this space with the same precaution you would putting an ad on TV or in print. And that’s important for you, and your audience."

Copyright © 2013, Out-Law.com

Out-Law.com is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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