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Complaints submitted to Advertising Standards Canada, the self-regulatory body that oversees the sector, jumped 51 per cent last year, hitting their highest level in more than a decade.James Steidl/iStock

No annual contract. No extra fees. Lowest prices of the year. Promises, promises.

Misleading advertising is as old as the industry itself. But Canadian consumers are increasingly demanding honesty in their ads, and taking companies to task when they don't get it.

Complaints submitted to Advertising Standards Canada, the self-regulatory body that oversees the sector, jumped 51 per cent last year, hitting their highest level in more than a decade. More than 1,800 complaints were submitted last year, according to its annual complaints report, released on Tuesday.

The shift toward focusing on truth in advertising comes partly from consumers who are watching their budgets more closely and are quick to complain if an offer does not live up to promised savings.

Another major factor is the rise and proliferation of social media websites, which give consumers a venue to share their problems– and sometimes to distribute petitions, said Janet Feasby, vice-president of standards at the organization.

And beyond the blanket increase in complaints is another trend: Canadians are increasingly objecting to misleading, unclear, and dishonest ads.

"With today's economic climate, people are scrutinizing advertising more than ever," Ms. Feasby said. "I can only imagine that will continue."

In the past, the vast majority of complaints referred to offensive ads, which fell under the clause in the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, which refers to "unacceptable depictions and portrayals." But a growing number of people have contacted ASC about campaigns that they believe violate the code's clauses on "accuracy and clarity" and "price claims."

In 2011, for the first time, these complaints outnumbered those focused on offensive images or ideas.

In 2003, only about 17 per cent of complaints were about accuracy, while more than half were about ads consumers found offensive. In 2011, by contrast, roughly one-third of the complaints focused on accuracy.

Retailers attracted the highest number of complaints for misleading ads.

In one example, Future Shop Ltd. was taken to task for a "Buy one get one free" promotion for video games in its flyers. A shopper complained after trying to buy a game and being told it was not included in the promotion.

The council reviewing the complaint found that the game in question was advertised on the website as part of the promotion, and the ads were inaccurate.

Retail was not the only category with problematic offers. A national online campaign by a chain of gyms, Extreme Fitness, promised memberships for $6 a month with no annual contract required; the group found that this campaign did not make important details clear, such as the fact that customers had to sign a two-month contract to take advantage of the discount.

"People think marketers generally have an interest in not being offensive, [but]they think they might have an interest in being misleading," said David Herle, a principal with the Gandalf Group, which conducted research on consumers' attitudes toward advertising standards for the council in September and October last year.

It's not just a tighter economy that is driving the change. With advertisers pouring more of their money into online campaigns, they are also raising consumers' suspicions. Less than half the people surveyed by Gandalf Group said they viewed advertising on the Web as "somewhat" or "very truthful."

"There's a perception that if you see something in the newspaper or on TV, it's vetted – and that online, it's more of a wild west," Mr. Herle said.

However, while a growing number of Canadians were focused on truth in ads last year, they still found plenty of reasons to complain about images they found offensive.

A notable example came from Fluid Hair Salon in Edmonton, which ran an ad online depicting a big-haired model sitting on a couch with a black eye, while a man holding a necklace stood behind her. The tagline was, "Look good in all you do." The ad attracted 56 complaints to Advertising Standards Canada, which found that the ad trivialized violence against women.


Above all, truth

Canadian consumers used to be most agitated by advertisements they found offensive, but their focus has shifted in the past decade.

Increasingly, complaints to Advertising Standards Canada are not about "unacceptable depictions" of products or services, but rather focus on accuracy, clarity or price claims.

- In 2003, for example, it received 629 complaints about unacceptable depictions, compared with 191 about accuracy, clarity or price claims.

- In 2008, 423 complaints were tallied about unacceptable depictions, compared with 343 about accuracy/clarity/price claims.

- By 2011, the focus had shifted: 604 complaints were made about accuracy/clarity/price claims, while 533 were about unacceptable depictions.

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