Can I reference COVID / coronavirus in my advertising?

I'm not an ad man. In fact, I go out of my way to block online advertising, mostly because of the underlying surveillance which is used to target ads. But that’s a different issue, for another day.

Can you reference coronavirus in your advertising?

The short answer is that yes, you can, as long as you comply with the usual rules about adverts.

The rules on advertising

Different, but similar, rules apply to advertising to consumers and advertising to businesses.

Advertising to consumers

It's an offence to use an advert:

  • if it contains false information and is therefore untruthful in relation to one or more of a list of things (including the "main characteristics" of the thing being advertised); or
  • if it or its overall presentation in any way deceives or is likely to deceive the average consumer in relation to any of [those things], even if the information is factually correct.

Advertising to businesses

The requirement is similar, in that there's a prohibition (also backed by a criminal offence) on misleading advertising.

Advertising is misleading if it:

"in any way, including its presentation, deceives or is likely to deceive the traders to whom it is addressed or whom it reaches; and by reason of its deceptive nature, is likely to affect their economic behaviour".

"Legal, decent, honest and truthful"

The UK's self-regulatory body for advertising, the Advertising Standards Authority, has a general principle that advertising must be "legal, decent, honest and truthful".

It is just a guiding principle, and there's often room for argument as to how it applies to a particular advert, but it's a useful starting point.

The ASA is soliciting reports of non-compliant advertising relating to coronavirus, for expedited review. The ASA has no real teeth beyond a bad write-up on its website and some resultant publicity (the ASA cannot fine you, for example, but mainstream news sites often cover ASA decisions), but the underlying legislation contains criminal sanctions.

But then again, if you were thinking of making fundamentally untrue claims about your product or service, you're probably not reading a legal blog post about advertising law...

Implementing this

What this means in practice is that, legally, you can refer to coronavirus, as long don't include false information, and you don't mislead.

If you're not familiar with the ASA's "CAP Code", which sets out guidance in more detail, it would be sensible to take a look before making your advert live. (Whether it is sensible to refer to coronavirus in your advertising — whether it is going to annoy potential customers rather than attract them — is, of course, a completely different matter.)

Making medical claims

Tread extremely carefully if you are making medical claims about your product or service.

If you are promoting anything which you claim can protect from coronavirus, or relieve or alleviate it, ensure you can evidence claims you are making.

But I really hope that goes without saying.