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Dishonest Advertising
- and a toothless Watchdog?


Chris

Manipulation of the public by the media is rife, and misleading advertisements are a good example.

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 win, and the weak lose, and right and wrong have nothing to do with it.

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

Ofcom was 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).

Specific Complaints

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

My Complaint:

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

My Complaint:

Elvive's Colour 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 superiority is being made - whereas, in fact, no meaningful claim is being made whatsoever.

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. Finally, later on 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:

In this case, the advertiser supplied evidence of the tests backing the claims of "70% more radiant colour." Text in the commercial made it clear that this was in comparison with classic shampoo. All 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 the specular 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 of 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 Lenses

My Complaint:

Their advertisement 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 dark.

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 current form.

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

My Complaint:

Ocean Finance claim that their loan rates are competitive, yet the inconspicuous text mentions a typical APR of 10.7% variable - which 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 of the 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 for their situation.

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.

The Halifax


My Complaint:

Their advertisement strongly presents a 6.5% loan rate in the script and in the graphics on the screen.Yet the small, rolling text at the bottom of the screen, in which a typical example is presented, mentions 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 free 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 the work of Ofcom, here.

Conclusion

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 to:

  • 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 - because - 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 about here.

    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 with Ofcom.

Finally - if you'd like to become Let's Fix Britain's manager for our dishonest advertising campaign, please contact us.

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 the advertising code of practice which permits widespread abuse of decent people in their armchairs here.

 
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