Advertisers asked to shoulder more responsibility in online market

An increasing number of people are using online shopping sites and other similar services. Advertisers need to fulfill their responsibility to eliminate inappropriate ads, so that consumers can use such sites without anxiety.

A panel of experts at the Consumer Affairs Agency has compiled a set of proposals to clarify advertisers’ responsibility regarding unscrupulous “affiliate advertising” online.

Under the affiliate advertising method, the creators of ads — called affiliates — post ads for products on their sites and social media platforms. Affiliates make arrangements ahead of time with the advertisers via intermediaries, and they receive commission from the advertisers when people who see the ads buy the related products.

The market for affiliate advertising is expected to reach about ¥500 billion in fiscal 2024. Advertisers are said to be drawn by the fact that they can easily place orders for ads.

However, there is no end to the hyperbole involved, with ad copy saying things like, “The blemishes on your face will disappear in just three weeks.” There have been problematic cases in which advertisers evade responsibility by claiming that the creator of the ad did something without permission.

The proposals say “advertisers should take responsibility for affiliate advertising,” demanding they check the contents of ads and set up relevant consultation services. The proposals also say that content should be labeled as ads, and contracts with dishonest ad creators should be terminated.

Consumer centers and other organizations nationwide received more than 110,000 inquiries about online advertising in fiscal 2020. Many were complaints related to affiliate advertising. It is appropriate to strengthen regulations, partly to prevent consumers from being forced to give up on their cases.

The agency will compile guidelines in accordance with the proposals, based on the Law against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations. It is also important for advertisers and industry groups to voluntarily regulate themselves.

Last year, legislation was created to require online shopping site operators to protect consumers in the event of trouble.

The revised Specified Commercial Transactions Law will come into force in June. It will regulate methods, including so-called trial sales that are advertised with copy such as “free the first time” but in which consumers are actually led to signing a subscription contract. It will also make it mandatory for operators to clearly display the contract details on the confirmation screen when consumers purchase items or services.

Stealth marketing — in which ads are not labeled as such but made to look like reviews — is rampant. This problematic method misleads consumers.

The government set up a panel of experts this month and began studying measures to combat stealth marketing and other such activities. It should continue to strive to create an environment compatible with an internet-based society, in a bid to enable healthy transactions.

Consumers should also be careful not to swallow ads and reviews whole, but properly check the contents of products and contract terms before making a purchase.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on March 21, 2022.