Interview: How the ASA is harnessing AI to fight the Wild West of online advertising

Last year, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) amended or withdrew a staggering 27,378 ads in total.

It’s an immense amount of work – but of these, just 8% resulted from direct complaints.

The other 92% came directly from the ASA’s proactive work, which makes the most of the latest advances in AI technology, allowing the regulator to process a total of three million ads over the course of the year and playing a pivotal role in its activities across 2023.

With such an impressive track record, ASA’s Active Ad Monitoring system is set to play an increasingly important role over the coming year, with the tool projected to help process as many as 10 million ads throughout 2024.

In short, the ASA has never been more efficient and has never covered such a vast scale of content – until now.

With the seemingly exponential growth of online advertising, and an increasing risk of potentially bad actors as a result, this kind of scaling up is vital if the regulator is to keep pace with the industry.

A gargantuan task

The ASA’s head of data science Adam Davison called the Active Ad Monitoring system “essential” for the regulator, and it’s not hard to see why.

The scale of online ads being produced daily in the UK is now simply too prolific and vast to be handled by humans alone – making medium almost impossible to regulate without cutting-edge technology.

The screening process that AI takes care of is indispensable if the ASA is to even start making a dent into problematic online content.

In its report, the ASA estimates that the technology will help it scan up to 10 million ads this year – what’s even more impressive is that tool was only scanning tens of thousands of ads a month at the start of 2023, with this number at half a million by the year’s end.

“No human can possibly be reviewing these millions of ads and understanding this at scale – you need assistance from these AI tools to make it work,” Davison explains.

“So in all areas of our work, whether it’s awareness, identifying cases that we might want to investigate, or ensuring that a particular area of advertising is compliant with a certain issue, it’s becoming increasingly core to the way we operate.”

The rapid scale at which this tool has been upscaled is a clear indication of AI’s wide-ranging potential, and by harnessing it the ASA could become more efficient than it has ever been.

The pace of change might seem electric, but it’s outright essential if the regulator is to keep any sort of grip on the immense amount of content being produced.

ASA’s human touch

As wonderful as this all may seem, the ASA’s, and indeed the entire industry’s transition towards greater AI integration does raise many questions – not least concerning the future of current role within the organisation.

Reassuringly, Davison is at pains to point out that the purpose of AI tools like the ASA’s Active Ad Monitoring system is a matter of optimisation and augmentation – not replacement.

He states that human touch will always be necessary, but AI can help one person get through more important work than ever before by weeding out unnecessary steps.

“What we’re absolutely not trying to do is to say that somehow AI is a substitute for expertise, it’s really not what we’re doing,” he emphasises.

“We’re multiplying up the power of those experts by focusing their attention on the right content, using AI machine learning to filter and find the stuff that’s most relevant.”

AI will be ‘boring’ in 5 years

So what does the future hold? For now Davison sees AI as primarily helping the ASA navigate the vast and choppy waters of online ads, although this may naturally evolve later down the line.

AI in general and specific scanning and filtering tools are set to become “increasingly core” to the way in which the ASA operates, Davison says. He predicts that in five years, AI will have become so widespread that it’ll be probably be “boring”.

“It will be a natural part of what we do every day. It will be seamlessly integrated into the way we understand what’s happening in the world of online advertising, and the way we act in response to those findings.”

As with many parts of the industry right now, it seems that AI is inevitable – but for now at least, it seems that the sector is largely optimistic about its implementation, excited about the possibilities for rapid augmentation that it provides.

Whether it will indeed end up changing the face of advertising and regulation is indisputable – but whether its future lies in optimisation or replacement is another question entirely.

AgenciesFeaturesInnovation and Tech

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