Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Advertising Standards Authority - Is it worth complaining?

The Advertising Standards Authority is funded by the advertising industry to reassure consumers that ads are 'legal, decent, honest and truthful'

It's easy to complain about an ad online if you think it doesn't match the above description. However based on my experiences don't expect anything to happen quickly, and don't expect the advertiser to be severely punished.

I considered complaining to the ASA about some wordsearch contest ads run in the Sun by Churchcastle in 2011. An elderly relative was duped into thinking she had won a prize and ran up a £120 phone bill she could ill-afford making calls that cost over £8 each. I didn't complain to the ASA because I knew she wouldn't get her money back and Churchcastle wouldn't get fined.

The Churchcastle Ad

Instead I contacted the then premium phone line regulator PhonePayPlus. However they told me they were aware of the ads but had decided not to investigate.

So as a last resort I rang the Sun reader services, and to my utter surprise they instructed Churchcastle to refund the £120 - which amazingly they did. So I felt the regulator had failed to protect my then 93 year old relative but the newspaper did look after their loyal reader.

Then in October 2012 a surprising thing happened. PhonePayPlus announced its biggest ever fine for abuse of premium rate telephony - £800,000 to Churchcastle for the very ad I had attempted to complain about. It seems they continued to receive complaints, many from people with relatives aged 80+ who had fallen victim, and looked again. Then they decided to act to protect vulnerable consumers. They also instructed Churchcastle to refund the money to anyone who had entered. 

(Disappointingly in June 2013 after a series of appeals the PSA Authority reduced the fine  to £425,000 + £100,000 in legal costs).

By the time the Advertising Standards Authority got around to issuing a judgement on the Churchcastle ads it was December 2012 - 22 months after the ad first appeared in February 2011. 

Unbelievably the ASA did not agree that the miniscule print  explaining the call cost at the bottom of a full page newspaper ad was in breach of their advertising code. They said readers could work it out. The ASA did however state that because entrants had to pay over £8 to claim their prize it did break one rule on prize promotions.

So as far as I was concerned the ASA looked a bit foolish. PhonePayPlus had issued its largest ever fine £800,000 but the ASA didn't think the ad boke its rules.

In January 2013 I complained to the ASA that Gatwick Airport had run a promotion that misleadingly promised by pre-booking parking early you were guaranteed the cheapest rate. The rate dropped after I booked it. The ASA ruled that the ad was misleading. They did put me in touch with the parking operator and the airport did eventually refund the entire cost.

I complained to the ASA again in May 2014 about a Morrison's supermarket promotion - buy 3 bottles of premium wines for £10. The stock ran out the first day, even though the ads ran all Bank Holiday. The ASA was minded to let Morrison's off because they put some inferior wines on offer instead - but they didn't display pictures of these wines in any of the ads - as I was able to prove with screenshots of Morrison's website - screenshots which Morrison's couldn't provide to the ASA. Eventually the ASA upheld my complaint - insufficient stock of a product on promotion.

In June 2014 I complained to the ASA about the way Stansted airport advertised its parking charges in online ads. The ASA agreed the pricing and discount claims did not comply with the Advertising Code, however they resolved the matter informally and no adjudication was published. I asked the ASA to get the airport to refund me the overcharge but they said this was beyond their remit.

The Daily Mail free Marmite promotion

In October 2016 I complained to the ASA about a Daily Mail and Iceland stores front page promotion for a free large jar of Marmite. All you had to do was take the voucher to Iceland. My local store had no stock, and many people on social media found the same. It took the ASA 8 months to investigate, and today they agreed the promotion broke their rules - some Iceland stores had as few as 10 jars, some had none at all. 

So what happens when the ASA investigates one of its members ads? Not much. The ad must be amended or it mustn't appear again. That's it. The Daily Mail complaint took 8 months, I had to write to the Chief Executive of the ASA to ask why it was taking so long, and as a result I complained about the ASA itself. They begrudgingly apologised to me and said the process had taken longer than it should have done.

The ASA Annual Report issued in April 2017 reveals that only 60% (against a target of 75%) of complainants are satisfied with the process. The ASA gets a new Chair (Lord David Currie) on 1st October this year. I hope he'll look closely at why complainants are so unhappy and work to improve both the speed and effectiveness of the complaints process.

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