Ad Standards offers many ways for the public, the advertising industry, and even regulators, to raise questions and concerns about the advertising presented to Canadians, and to have them resolved. The core document of advertising self-regulation is the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards (Code). In addition to the Code, Ad Standards also administers several other “Compliance Plus” programs, where industry sectors hold themselves accountable to additional standards, sometimes even above what is required by law or the Code.
Do you have a complaint or concern about:
An advertisement, promotion or label of a distilled spirit (e.g. vodka, rum, gin, etc.)?
- See - Spirits Canada’s Code of Responsible Advertising and Marketing (Spirits Canada Code)
An ad on television or radio directed to children under the age of 12?
- See - Children’s Broadcast Advertising Complaints
- Read our FAQs on submitting complaints related to online interest-based advertising
How an advertiser uses online interest-based advertising?
An advertisement for a food or beverage that is primarily directed to children under the age of 13 in any media?
The content of an ad that might raise issues under the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards?
- See the Consumer Complaint Procedure below
The Consumer Complaint Procedure
The Consumer Complaints Procedure is an effective mechanism for accepting and responding to consumer concerns about Canadian advertising.
A Fair System for Fair Results
- How to Submit Consumer Complaints to Ad Standards
- How Consumer Complaints are Received and Handled by Ad Standards and Council
- Non-Reviewable Complaints
- Complaint Review Process
- Complaints Involving Clauses 10 or 14
- Complaints Involving All Other Code clauses
- Administratively Resolved Complaints Involving Clauses 1 and 3
- Council Hearing and Decision
- Appealing a Council Decision
- Publication of Standards Council Adjudications
- Re-Opening a Case
- Advertiser’s Failure to Respond or Participate
- Failure to Follow Procedure or Comply with Decision
The procedure for consumers wishing to complain to Ad Standards that an "advertisement" (as defined in the Code) contravenes the Code is as follows:
Ad Standards accepts complaints submitted by email or letter.
To submit a complaint by e-mail:
Complete the Online Complaint Submission Form available on Ad Standards’ website.
To submit a complaint by letter:
Include your full name, telephone number, complete mailing address and email address (if available).
Identify the product or service being advertised, and the medium in which the advertisement appears:
- For Print Advertisements: identify the name and date of the publication(s) in which you saw the advertisement(s) and include a copy of the advertisement(s).
- For Out-of-home Advertisements, such as outdoor, transit or similar advertisements: identify the date on and exact location at which you saw the advertisement.
- For Broadcast Advertisements: identify the station, time and date on/at which you saw/heard the commercial and provide a brief description of the commercial.
- For Cinema Advertisements: identify the title of the movie, the date of viewing, and the name and location of the movie theatre at which you saw the advertisement and provide a brief description of the advertisement.
- For Internet Advertisements: identify the date of viewing, website, and include a print-out of the advertisement and other applicable web pages (if any).
Explain the reason or basis for the complaint and, if known, the provision(s) of the Code that may apply.
In keeping with their mandate within today’s self-regulatory environment, Ad Standards and Council carefully consider and respond to all written consumer complaints received by them about advertising that allegedly does not comply with the Code.
The critical factor in determining whether an advertisement should be reviewed by Council is not the number of complaints received. The fundamental issue is only whether an advertisement, if the subject of any number of complaints, appears to contravene the Code. Ultimately, that question can only be answered by Council in response to one or more bona fide complaints that originate from the public.
Where a complaint about an advertisement is submitted by, or on behalf of, an entity that represents one or more other individuals or entities, and that entity or its members are “advertisers” as defined under the Code, the complaint will be administered under the Ad Standards’ Advertising Dispute Procedure. Complaints about an advertisement that are submitted by individuals, or a group of individuals, who are not “advertisers” will be administered under the Consumer Complaint Procedure.
If, upon review, it appears to Ad Standards or Council that a complaint is not a disguised dispute between advertisers, and that based on the provisions of the Code reasonable grounds for the complaint appear to exist, then the consumer complaint will be accepted for processing. If at any time thereafter during the complaint review process, but prior to the release of Council’s decision on the complaint, either Ad Standards or Council concludes that, in reality, the complaint is a dispute between advertisers and not a consumer complaint, the process will be discontinued and the complainant notified accordingly. In these cases, the complainant will be reminded that alternative approaches should be considered by the complainant for registering an advertising-related complaint, such as under Ad Standards’ Advertising Dispute Procedure.
Ad Standards or Council shall decline to accept, or to proceed further with, a complaint, or any part thereof, where it is of the opinion that:
- the specific advertisement(s) about which the complainant alleges a Code violation has/have not been identified;
- based on the provisions of the Code, reasonable grounds for the complaint do not appear to exist;
- the advertising, or such part of the advertising to which the complaint refers:
- is, substantially, also the subject of litigation or other legal action then actively undertaken and pursued in Canada; or
- is under review, or subject to an order, by a Canadian court, an agent or agency (or some other comparable entity) of the Canadian Government; or
- generally meets, or exceeds, or is not inconsistent with, advertising standards articulated in regulations, guidelines, or otherwise by an agency (or some other comparable entity) of the Canadian government or a provincial government with respect to products or services that are fundamentally comparable to the products or services advertised in the advertising to which the complaint refers; or
- has been, specifically, approved by an agency (or some other comparable entity) of the Canadian Government; or that
- such advertising is not within the purview of the Code or, if in Ad Standards’ opinion, the complaint is beyond the resources or ability of Ad Standards to resolve effectively, reasonably or conclusively under this Procedure; or if the matter to which such advertising refers has been identified by a competent authority such as an agency (or some other comparable entity) of the Canadian government or a provincial government as being outside the purview of Ad Standards; or
- the complainant is abusing this Consumer Complaint Procedure.
Ad Standards’ policy is to respond to every complaint or inquiry we receive from the public under the Consumer Complaints Procedure. In very rare instances, we receive complaints that contain offensive language or content. This includes foul language, racial slurs, or abusive or threatening messaging towards the members of an identifiable community or our staff. Unless the complainant is using such language to quote an ad that is the subject of a complaint, Ad Standards reserves the right not to respond to these submissions and they will not be advanced under the Consumer Complaints Procedure.
All complaints directed to Ad Standards will be initially evaluated by Ad Standards staff. If, in its evaluation, Ad Standards makes a preliminary determination that there may be a Code infraction by the advertisement (i.e. an accepted complaint), the advertiser will be notified in writing of the nature of the complaint and, if informed consent is freely granted by the complainant to Ad Standards, the identity of the complainant.
When an accepted complaint relates to the provisions of Clause 10 (Safety) or Clause 14 (Unacceptable Depictions and Portrayals), the advertiser will be asked to promptly respond (copying Ad Standards), within a stated timeframe, directly to the complainant if the complainant has agreed to be identified. If the complainant does not wish to be identified, the advertiser will respond directly to Ad Standards, who will redirect the response to the complainant. Complaints about alleged offences under Clauses 10 or 14 that are handled in this way will go forward for Council deliberation if the complainant notifies Ad Standards that the complainant remains dissatisfied after receiving the advertiser’s response, and if, after reviewing the advertiser’s response, Ad Standards believes the advertising still raises an issue under the Code. Otherwise, the matter will not be forwarded to Council and will not proceed further.
Where a preliminary determination has been made that there may be an infraction of one or more of the other clauses of the Code (i.e. other than Clauses 10 or 14), the advertiser will be asked to respond directly to Ad Standards by providing, in writing and without unreasonable delay, information requested by Council in order that Council may deliberate and reach a fully-informed decision about whether the Code has, in fact, been violated.
Ad Standards uses this mechanism as a streamlined procedure to handle simple, non-complicated cases that typically involve mistakes*, when it is in the best interest of both the advertiser and the consumer. Ad Standards staff can resolve these cases when they involve a potential contravention of Clause 1 (Accuracy and Clarity) and/or Clause 3 (Price Claims), without requiring Council’s adjudication if:
- After final determination at staff-level, only Clause 1 and/or Clause 3 are at issue;
- The advertiser permanently withdraws the advertisement in question before Council meets to consider the complaint; and
- In the case of retail advertising*, the advertiser must, in addition to permanently withdrawing the advertisement, undertake appropriate corrective action by providing a correction notice* that:
(i) appears in consumer-oriented media addressed to the same consumers as the original advertisement; or that
(ii) is prominently exhibited at retail* where the incorrectly advertised product or service is available for purchase.
If these conditions are not met then Ad Standards will forward the case to Council for adjudication.
All complaints directed to Ad Standards will be initially evaluated by Ad Standards staff. If a complaint raises a potential Code issue and concerns an English-language advertisement, other than one that appears only in Quebec, it will be directed to the Standards Council. If a complaint raises a potential Code issue and concerns advertising in the French-language, or advertising that appears only in Quebec, the complaint will be evaluated and decided by le Conseil des normes.
At the initial Council deliberation, the materials available for Council’s review include, at a minimum, the complaint letter, the advertiser’s written response, if any, and a copy of the advertising in question.
Council’s decisions are by majority vote. Any member of Council may abstain from voting on any matter.
If Council concludes an advertisement violates the Code, the advertiser, with a copy to the complainant, will be notified of the decision in writing and requested to appropriately amend the advertising in question or withdraw it, in either case without unreasonable delay
If, at the initial deliberation by Council, the complaint is not upheld, both the complainant and the advertiser will be notified in writing with an explanation for Council’s decision.
Both the complainant and the advertiser are entitled to request an appeal from a decision of Council by filing a Request for Appeal addressed to Ad Standards. The Request for Appeal must be in writing and received at Ad Standards within seven working days after the decision is sent to the parties. It must provide the appellant’s reasons for believing the decision was in error. A request by an advertiser for an appeal will be considered if that advertiser undertakes in writing to withdraw the advertising in question within 11 working days after the Request for Appeal is received at Ad Standards. The withdrawn advertising may be reinstated, however, if at the appeal hearing the Appeal Panel decides not to uphold the complaint. Advertisers will be granted a reasonable extension of time in which to withdraw the advertising if Council is satisfied that the advertising medium used to convey the advertising is unable to facilitate the withdrawal in the designated time.
A five-person Appeal Panel will be selected from among a roster of persons who did not serve at the original Council deliberation. The Appeal Panel will comprise two public representatives with the balance coming from the advertising industry sector. Both the advertiser and the complainant will be requested to make only written submissions to the Appeal Panel. The submissions must be brief, confined strictly to the matters under appeal and received by Ad Standards within the requested timeframe. At the appeal hearing, the complaint will be treated as a new complaint and the matter reconsidered in its entirety.
Decisions of Appeal Panels will be by majority vote and will be sent to both parties following the appeal hearing. Decisions by Appeal Panels will be binding and final.
Ad Standards publishes case summaries of complaints upheld by Council in its online Ad Complaints Reports. When Council finds that an advertisement contravenes the Code, the advertiser is requested to appropriately amend or permanently withdraw the advertisement.
Whether or not an advertiser is named in a case summary, or is kept anonymous, depends upon the advertiser’s action.
- Non-identified Cases: In these cases, the advertiser permanently withdrew the advertisement before Council met to adjudicate the complaint. These case summaries maintain anonymity by not naming the advertiser and omitting identifiable details about the advertisement.
- Identified Cases: In these cases, the advertiser did not permanently withdraw the advertisement before Council met to adjudicate the complaint. These case summaries identify the advertiser and provide identifiable details about the advertisement.
Whether a case is identified or not, it is published as an educational tool for the industry, and not as a sanction to advertisers. Ad Standards' Ad Complaints Reports are an important part of the advertising industry's consumer response mechanism. These reports provide valuable insights into consumer concerns about issues relating to advertising, and how the Standards Council interprets and applies the Code's clauses.
Identifying the Advertiser and its Advertising
Notwithstanding any contrary provision stated elsewhere in the Code, Ad Standards will have the discretionary right, but not the obligation, in “Non-identified Cases” or in “Administratively Resolved Cases”, to identify and comment on an advertiser, its advertising and the outcome of a complaint about the advertising as adjudicated by Ad Standards, Council and/or an Appeal Panel.
This discretionary right of Ad Standards arises when an advertiser in a “Non-identified Case” or in an “Administratively Resolved Case”:
- has, in Ad Standards’ opinion, permitted or participated in the disclosure publicly of the identity of the advertiser and the advertising in question, and/or the outcome of one or more complaints about the advertising as adjudicated by Ad Standards, Council or an Appeal Panel; or
- when the advertiser specifically asks Ad Standards to comment publicly, as Ad Standards sees fit, on the advertiser’s advertising in question and/or the outcome of one or more complaints about the advertising as adjudicated by Ad Standards, Council or an Appeal Panel.
Ad Standards will have the discretionary right to reactivate the Consumer Complaint Procedure, in whole or part, including the imposition of sanctions provided in the Code, if an advertiser fails to fulfill its undertaking to withdraw or amend an advertisement; or if the matter underlying the complaint is of a continuing or repetitive nature, suggesting an avoidance of the provision(s) of the Code.
If an advertiser fails to respond in a timely manner to Ad Standards’ request for a copy of the advertisement that is the subject of a consumer complaint, Ad Standards may ask the carrying media to assist Ad Standards by providing it with a copy of the advertisement in question. If an advertiser fails to respond to a complaint or participate in the Consumer Complaint Procedure the complaint may be decided in the advertiser’s absence based on the information already in the possession of Council and on any further pertinent information submitted by the complainant for Council’s review.
The Code is a reflection of standards by which industry wishes to be held accountable for its advertising and representations to the public. Because self-regulation is more than self-restraint on the part of individual companies or entities, the Code would be incomplete without effective sanctions to enforce compliance.
If an advertiser fails to participate in or comply with the provisions of the Consumer Complaint Procedure or to voluntarily comply with a decision of Council, Ad Standards:
- will advise exhibiting media of the advertiser’s failure to co-operate and comply, and request media’s support in no longer exhibiting the advertising or representation(s) in question; and
- may publicly declare, in such manner as Council deems appropriate, that the advertising or representation(s) in question have been found to contravene the Code, and publicly identify the advertiser of such advertising or entity making such representation(s); and
- may notify the Competition Bureau and/or other regulatory authorities of the fact that the advertiser of such advertising or entity making such representation(s) has not participated in or with the Consumer Complaint Procedure, and/or that the advertising or representation(s) in question has/have been found to contravene the Code, and that the advertiser or entity making the representation(s) has not complied with a decision of Council.