the public by the media is rife, and misleading advertisements are a good
They try to make us buy through deception and when we
see that happening, they contribute to our perception
that the world is a bad
place where the strong
and the weak lose, and right and wrong have nothing to do with
I decided to look at the structures we have
to regulate advertising, and then to exercise it to see how well it works.
I focused on television
advertising. This article summarises my activities and my findings.
Our Advertising Watchdog
currently our regulator for UK television and
radio, costing £144 million in the year
ending March 2004. It existed to protect the interests of us - as
citizen and consumers.
So I worked with Ofcom
in this campaign.
You can read
about the specific complaints below. Later Ofcom was absorbed into the
Advertising Standards Agency (ASA).
I submitted a number of complaints about TV ads to Ofcom.
Here is my summary of what happened. To ensure fair representation, I've
included the complete dialogue for each complaint via a link, and in
those detail pages, you can also find opportunities to voice your opinions
to LFB and to Ofcom. If you prefer to skip the details, you can go
straight to my conclusion here.
The Duracell Bunnies
I had two issues with this ad. Firstly - seeing
four "ordinary" bunnies being outrun by the Duracell bunny
is a visual implication that Duracell
is four times better than ordinary batteries, which is untrue.
Secondly, we are told "no ordinary battery lasts like it",
but in small disclaimer
text, we are told that this comparison is with zinc carbon batteries.
Zinc carbon batteries are yesterday's technology, and are seldom
seen for sale - they are not "ordinary batteries" anymore.
By using the term "ordinary battery", Duracell
are misleading us.
You can read the full
exchange with Ofcom here
OFCOM Rejected my complain because:
Alkaline batteries may be more
common these days, but they disagree that the term "ordinary" will
therefore be interpreted to mean "alkaline". They feel
that "ordinary" will mean "zinc carbon" in
the minds of most viewers.
They support this assertion by noting that
few other complaints have been received.
They believe that the use of inconspicuous textual
disclaimers are legitimate.
Very depressing stuff! Along
the way, they also ignored four reminders and
took far too
long to process the complaint. Read details of my complaint
about that, and how it was dealt with here.
I'm curious to know if my views are more common, or
if OFCOM's are on these issues, so - if you visit the full dialogue
page here, you can also complete a form to tell me and OFCOM - what
your own view is.
You can read my full dialogue with OFCOM on this, and
submit your own views to OFCOM here.
Elvive Colour Protect
Protect ad boasts "70%
more radiant colour" -
a totally meaningless and therefore un-supportable claim. 70%
more radiant than what? How is "radiance" measured?
It's all nonsensical pseudo-science designed to give the
impression that a scientifically valid claim about product
being made - whereas, in fact, no meaningful claim is being
I haven't included a full-dialogue page for this complaint,
because there was very little dialogue, and it's all below. Ofcom
failed to respond within their own two week goal, and so I sent reminders
on 18.8.4, 2.9.4 and 23.9.4.
I received a letter from Ofcom rejecting my complaint. The substance
of their response is as follow:
OFCOM Rejected my Complaint because:
this case, the advertiser supplied evidence of the tests backing the claims
more radiant colour." Text
in the commercial made it clear that this was in comparison with classic
hair used underwent the same processes. Radiance was measured
using a commercially available instrument called a photogonioreflectometer.
Apparently, light from a xenon arc lamp was also shone on the
hair. Using a light detector linked to dedicated software both
reflection and the diffuse reflection were measured. The results
revealed 70% more shine compared with ordinary shampoo.
In the circumstances there would be no grounds to find the advertising
misleading. Thankyou nonetheless, for taking the trouble to raise
the matter with us.
Hmmm. I must have missed the text making it clear that the comparison
was with classic shampoo, and now the ad is gone, but in any case,
but I assume that they must be right.
I accept that I am wrong and they are right. It took
OFCOM 7 weeks to turn this round. I appreciate
that Ofcom may have relied on other organisations to provide
information they needed to conduct their investigation, but , this
seems too long for convenience and is certainly too long in the case
an upheld complaint - because it means the ad will be showing for
those seven weeks, and the campaign may well conclude before any
decision is made.
Transitions Light-Sensitive Spectacle
clearly shows light-sensitive lenses in glasses changing from dark
to light and vice versa in
less than 5
seconds, yet the far less
visible text says it takes 16 minutes to return to clear from
I feel that the ad is therefore misleading, and the text does not
redeem the sin; the intent seems clearly to be to dupe the casual
observer into thinking the lenses react as shown. If not, why
shoe them doing what they can't actually do?
Ofcom Upheld my Complaint, because:
It is clear that
the lenses do not change shade as quickly as the advertisement
suggested.The advertisement clearly
showed the lenses
changing in a matter of seconds while the
reality is that it takes at least 16 minutes.We do not believe
that the on-screen text was acting to "qualify"the visuals
but was in fact contradictory. We also did not consider 'simulation'
was a sufficient qualification to outweigh the main visual claim.
The advertisement was therefore in breach of Advertising Standards
Code Rule 5.1 (Misleading Advertising).
The advertisement should not be shown again in its
A result! But it took seven weeks, and I doubt
that the ad was still running by this time. That's crucially important,
because I am guessing it means that this entire
process is completely without value. My
efforts, along with the expense of running Ofcom - are all
to no avail. Because the advertiser ran a bad ad campaign, got it
seen by millions,
made its money and got away with it completely un-punished. You
can see how I faired in getting Ofcom to answer this criticism here.
Ocean Finance claim that
their loan rates are competitive, yet the inconspicuous text mentions
a typical APR
is not even close to being competitive.
So, the ad is misleading as well as being hugely annoying.
You can read my dialogue with Ofcom on this ad here
Ofcom rejected this complaint because:
The commercial is not claiming to be the cheapest
but is offering credit to a range of consumers including those
who may have been
refused finance elsewhere because of their circumstances. The
rates clearly appear on screen so potential consumers are aware
costs involved. Also, it's very likely that most viewers will
shop around and compare rates for themselves. Individual circumstances
will vary and for some consumers the rate will be appropriate
I argued against this - I think it's just wrong, and you can review
that discussion here.
If you would like to comment to Ofcom on their decision in this case,
you can email them
&Subject=Ofcom stance on Ocean Finance'>here.
advertisement strongly presents a 6.5% loan rate in the
script and in the graphics on the screen.Yet the small,
bottom of the screen, in which a typical example is presented,
a 1% "arrangement fee".
So the real loan rate is 1% higher at 7.5%. The true rate is hidden
in two ways - first by calling it an "arrangement fee",
and scond, by mentioning it only in the low-impact small print.
So I think it's intentionally misleading.
Ofcom have not yet replied.
I would love to hear your views on this. Please complete
this form - I'll publish the results here, and I'll also send them to
Ofcom. If you would like to complain about this or any other as, please fee
to do so here,
and please mention Let's Fix Britain in the body of your complaint, so
that we can see what impact we're having. You can read bulletins about
of Ofcom, here.
So, we have a way to complain about the ads we feel are
dishonest, and it can work. I got one ad banned in four attempts.
With any public body, we have the right to expect it
- Work well
- Spend our money efficiently
- Be open and accountable to us
- Be receptive to our views, and to the possibility of change
for the better
Although we have this right, in my experience,
we often see none of these attributes,
and that's partly why Let's Fix Britain exists.
Here's what I have concluded through working with Ofcom:
1. Ofcom Reacts Slowly - with up to 7 weeks
needed to resolve an issue. I accept that they need to work with
other groups to collect information before making a judgment,
but this delay is crucially damaging their power as you'll see
below. But over and above this, I have found Ofcom to be slow
even in their conduct of low-level dialogue. In fact, they
were initially so unresponsive that
I tried to complained. You can read that here.
2. Ofcom Seems Impotent -
- even when they uphold a complaint, their action is
to prevent the offending ad being shown again in its current form.
Given their 7 week delay in reaching such judgments, it's likely
that any ad campaign will have long completed. This is closing
the door long after the horse has bolted. Ofcom claim that
this ad ban can
have serious financial consequences
for companies who may have spent a lot on producing the banned
ads. I'm not convinced. Why aren't huge fines imposed? If we don't
punish, we can expect the general standards to decline. You can
read about my discussion with Ofcom on this here
3. Ofcom have the Wrong Set of Values, in
my view, and in the following respects:
a. They think it's OK for small, inconspicuous
textual disclaimers to offset inaccurate claims made in the main
area of the ad. It seems to me that this phenomenon - whereby the
large print giveth, and the small print taketh away is fundamentally
dishonest, and we should stamp it out. What a shame they disagree.
If you agree with me, please consider sending them an email
&Subject=Ofcom stance on small disclaimer text in TV advertising&Body=An article
at LetsFixBritian.com says you approve of small text messages disclaimers on
TV ads. I feel they support dishonest advertising and should be disallowed. Please
let me know if I have understood your stance correctly, and then explain to me
how you justify it. Thanks and Regards '>here.
b. They pay close attention
to the number of complaints received, which seems reasonable,
but in my view, they interpret an absence of other complaints
too heavily as indicating that there isn't a problem. So I encourage
you to submit your own advertising complaints to Ofcom here.
c. They think it's OK for an
advertiser to imply some untrue claim - through visuals, for
example - - as long as they don't actually say it.
d. They do not see themselves
as hard-nosed, uncompromising defenders of the code.
Instead, they see a broader, softer role, which you can read
4. They are not as open as they could
be because - whilst they publish the complaints they
uphold, they do not publish those they dismiss. You can read
their bulletins here.
However, I have found Elfed Owen to be responsive and patient;
willing to discuss issues concerning not just complaints, but
the operation of Ofcom with me at length.
I urge you to complain to Ofcom when you see a TV ad
which seems to be misleading or downright dishonest. Ofcom look at
the number of complaints received in making their judgments, and so
your complaint is important. Also, and for the same reason, please
consider using the elements of this article to register your views
Finally - if you'd like to become Let's Fix Britain's
manager for our dishonest advertising campaign, please contact
You can hear a great BBC Radio 4 program - The Commission
- which explores advertising in the UK, by clicking here.
As always, we get what we put up with - so let's use
the machinery we already pay for to put up with less dishonest advertising.
See my head-on fight with the Advertising
Standards Authorutu (ASA) on getting them to defend
code of practice which permits widespread abuse of decent
people in their armchairs here.