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Regulating Online Advertising In Nigeria: A Wild Goose Chase?

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Advertisers, marketers, and content providers are turning to the digital space to connect with consumers because of the rising population of users. 

According to a Statista report, as of April 2022, there were five billion internet users worldwide, which is 63 percent of the global population. Of this total, 4.65 billion were social media users.

In line with this, digital advertising is rising and generating revenue for digital marketers and agencies. Some brands now simply embark only on online advertising as a mean of reaching their customers while others put it as one of the important media in their advertising and marketing communication strategy. Today, big tech companies such as Meta, Twitter, TikTok, and LinkedIn rake in a lot of revenue.

Remarkably, the global internet advertising market size was valued at $319 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach $1,089 billion by 2027, registering a CAGR of 17.2% from 2020 to 2027 according to Allied Market Research.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic to date, the online space has been enjoying a lot of attention compared to other media platforms. More people, both young and old are becoming digital natives and expressing themselves more freely, while also connecting with loved ones and friends on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media platforms.

Today, the online space is the centre of all-of-sort advertising messages because of its affordable advertising packages for both small and big advertisers. However, unverified claims, offensive, and unethical advertising messages find their way into the space. 

 The traditional media; Television, radio, print (Newspaper and Magazine), and outdoor advertising are well regulated in Nigeria by the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON). Their creative content must be sent for vetting before they are exposed. Howerver, it is not the case online, as most advertising has never been vetted by the council.

Recall, that a recent online advert of a bank triggered a national outburst that many including the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) described as offensive. The advert compared the resurrection of Jesus with ‘Agege Bread’. The advertisement reads, “Like Agege Bread, He Rose!” Since then the call for sanitising the online space has become more intense than ever. 

Dr. Olalekan Fadolapo, Registrar/Chief Executive, APCON in response to the disturbing trend said, “Sadly, we have had complaints and petitions from the general public to call online media platform owners to order because of some reprehensible advertisements such as those promoting rituals, patronage of private parts enlargement, breast enlargement, love portions, money charms, concoctions to provide political powers, and other many unimaginable things not worthy to be mentioned in the public media. Some others have claimed the ability to cure all manner of ailments with one particular product without scientific proof. A particular advertisement has offered an ultimate solution with one product for getting rid of piles, HIV, diabetes, COVID, Stroke, Cancer, etc.”

Government Directives

In a bid to sanitise the online space, the lower chambers of the National Assembly, House of Representatives called on the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), to arrest and prosecute online advertisers of drugs. They also want the body and other related agencies to enlighten the public against the dangers of purchasing unregistered and non-prescribed drugs online.

The House of Reps also called on APCON to liaise with online advertising companies, such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc., to effectively monitor, control, and enforce advertising standards against online drug advertisers and unethical vendors.

In addition, they also urged the Pharmacists Council of Nigeria to sanction and prosecute individuals engaging in the sales and promotion of medicines online without the requisite authorization in line with the law establishing the Council. Similarly, it asked the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC) to take necessary action toward protecting consumers of online drugs.

Regulator Intervention

In a bid to sanitise the advertising industry and curb insensitive and provocative advertising messages, APCON at a press briefing held recently told Journalists it is poised to regulate online advertising in the country. 

Fadolapo said APCON will clamp down on individuals and organisations that engage in advertising without being first licensed by APCON. He added that the council is ready to ensure compliance of online advertisement with the provisions of the Nigerian code of advertising practice, sales promotions, and other rights/restrictions on the practice. He, therefore, urged brands, marketing communications professionals, and other stakeholders to ensure their online adverts are vetted by Advertising Standards Panel (ASP) before they are run. 

Similarly, he urged elective political office aspirants to ensure that their political advertisements are vetted and approved by the ASP before exposure on any medium to avoid unethical and offensive advertising content, “With the electioneering season at hand, elective political office aspirants are also implored to ensure that their political advertisements are vetted and approved by the ASP before exposure on any medium. This will diminish the repugnant influence of hate speech and unethical political communication in the country.”

Furthermore, Fadolapo revealed that the council has been inundated with petitions over unethical advertisements exposed on the online media platforms targeting the Nigerian market by both the primary and secondary digital media platform owners.

Fadolapo explained that a lot of advertising pops up on blogs and social media which are not met for children or against the belief of some of the people in the country among others without passing APCON vetting.

He noted that APCON’s regulation of online advertisement extends to all advertisements broadcast, published, or expose on any of the digital platforms directed or accessible within Nigeria.

“With the increase of digital media activities in Nigeria and accessibility of online media platforms, we have been faced with a new threat of unethical and provocative advertising and marketing communication materials which have every potential of inflaming religious crisis, moral decadence, and misleading information when allowed to thrive with attendant negative effect on the country, its economy and value system.

“The advent of the internet and new media, characterised by social networking sites such as Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc., has revolutionized communication globally. All the giant tech and primary digital media platforms owners such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc have been exploring the Nigeria digital media space with all sorts of advertisements some of which violate the Nigerian Code of Advertising Practice, pre-exposure vetting, and ethical requirements of an advertisement.

“These days, many people are bloggers and influencers offering themselves, their services, blogs, and media handles as platforms for products and services to be advertised on without recourse to accepted principles and ethics of the advertising practice. The sharp increase in violation and infraction of the Nigerian Code of Advertising is not only worrisome but also portends danger.”

Fadolapo emphasised that “APCON will like to reiterate that advertising is a distinguished profession like medicine, law, accounting, etc. the practice of advertising is governed by APCON law as stated in sections 1 and 17 of the acts. it is illegal and criminal for anyone to practice advertising without being first registered by APCON. APCON will clamp down on all individuals and organisation that engage in advertising without being first licensed by APCON.

“APCON is committed to ensuring that the advertising ecosystem is sanitised and shall not shy away from pursuing all lawful means, including causing the prosecution of violators of the Act and the Code of Advertising Practice when a violation occurs.”

Online Ad in Other Markets

To address the potential harm arising from indiscriminate online advertising, the UK government launched a consultation on proposed reforms to the regulatory framework governing digital advertising in the context of its Online Advertising Programme (OAP). This also follows the Call for Evidence undertaken by the Government in 2020 which resulted in the majority of stakeholders calling for significant regulatory reform, on the basis that the current regulatory system is insufficient.

Experts are also of the view that digital advertising is in the crossfire of upcoming European Union (EU) regulations. Luca Bertuzzi, Journalist, and Non-member Contributor said EU institutions have recently reached a political agreement on the Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act. These regulations are set to have far-reaching consequences for the digital economy, particularly on how data is collected and processed for online advertising.

How Possible is it to Regulate? 

Banwo & Ighodalo on its website said NAFDAC can’t manage the number of adverts released online without impeding the progress of businesses due to bureaucracy. “The Regulations prescribe 20 (twenty) working days as the timeline for obtaining an approval; however, it is not feasible to expect approval of the millions of adverts released each day on social media platforms within such a timeframe.

“The penalty for failure to comply with NAFDAC’s Guidelines is a meagre sum of not less than N100,000 or imprisonment. Sadly, this penalty is not commensurate with the damage that could result from false advertising or the financial gains accruable therefrom.”

Steve Babaeko, Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN) president at  the just concluded MarkHack 1.0 told Journalist, “The burden of regulating advertising falls on APCON, and of course, the difficult thing is the ubiquitous nature of social media itself and its usage, is it is a difficult thing to police. However, there is an opportunity to regulate. My greatest fear is that we must protect the consumers who are daily bombarded with by-products that have probably not undergone NAFDAC registration.”

Osamede Uwubanmwen, President, Advertisers Association of Nigeria (ADVAN) while speaking at the Marketing Conclave held recently said the association believes in self-regulation and believes that the online space should be regulated but the interest of advertisers should also be protected as they want their advert vetted on time.

Similarly, Agbons Igiewe, General Manager, Ziza Digital said regulators such as APCON needs to partner with the social media giants and have a separate framework for online regulation which is different from other traditional media considering the peculiarities of the platform and its audiences.       

Industry watchers pinpoint that all hands must be on the desk to sanitize the digital space. They also called for constant consumer education by government agencies and regulators. Others include the development of a simple yet impactful framework that does not affect the livelihood of digital marketers and advertisers.

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